‘Parliament is Re-Energized Now That Shwe Mann is Union House Speaker’

By Lawi Weng & Sanay Lin 6 September 2013

Lower House parliamentarian Thein Nyunt has made a name for himself as one of Burma’s more outspoken lawmakers, frequently leading the charge on issues pertaining to human rights and democracy as the country has transitioned from authoritarian military rule over the last two years.

Founder of the New National Democracy Party, Thein Nyunt is also a practicing lawyer, bringing his legal expertise to bear as reform-minded lawmakers attempt to overhaul out-of-date and oppressive legislation that has accumulated over the course of nearly five decades of military rule.

With the conclusion last week of the seventh session of a Parliament elected in 2010, and with lawmakers having completed more than half of their terms in office, Thein Nyunt spoke with The Irrawaddy about the past—and what he hopes is a bright future—for the legislature and the country.

Question: With 30 months of lawmakers’ terms now past, what is the current state of Burma’s democratization from your perspective in Parliament?

Answer: The situation has changed from the past and today. In the past, we tried hard to bring up issues such as ‘contempt of court’ provisions and Section 5 of the Emergency Provisions Act during the second session of Parliament, but my proposals could not be discussed at Parliament.

They [the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party] just blocked our proposals at that time. For example, when there was a problem in Yangon between employers and workers, I tried to propose forming a committee to investigate the issue. But my proposal failed when [the USDP] divided the vote, and many of their votes opposed my proposal, and the issue was only noted for the record. This is how we struggled in the past [at the beginning of Thein Nyunt’s term of office in 2010].

Since then, the situation has improved and I can tell you one positive thing about anti-corruption from the third session of Parliament. The House Speaker [Shwe Mann] told me to write the law, and he said that we did not need to form a commission to write this.

I wrote the draft and I proposed it at the fourth session of Parliament. The Lower House withdrew my draft after the Upper House also proposed another similar draft, which was written by the Finance Ministry.

But they took some from my draft that was not in their draft. Finally, the Union Parliament approved the [combined] draft law. I also proposed my draft law at the Union Parliament level after I developed it more, and I won over 80 votes. This shows how the situation has changed in Parliament, and not only ethnic MPs supported my proposal, but also military representatives.

I have found that there have been successes in Parliament, but there are things as well in which we were not successful. For example, the case of the Electronic Transactions Act, we still have not been able to abolish this act.

To analyze the whole situation, from the beginning of Parliament, let us say that in the beginning, our rights were abused by the majority [USDP] party members. Using the words of the House speaker, it was abuse of the democratic system.

Parliament has good momentum now, since the fourth session of Parliament, when some democratic force [elected in a 2012 by-election] who have similar ideas to my own reached Parliament.

For me, I will do my best for my country. I always want to debate issues in Parliament and ask questions repeatedly. I believe that this needs to happen in Parliament. I want to see people who are in Parliament not based on their own party’s interest. Show your own work; that you serve the people and the country.

Q: Since Shwe Mann became Union House speaker, there seems to be more of a lively debate between civilian MPs and military representatives. Would you agree with that assessment?

A: Just because a person has different ideas than me does not mean that he is my enemy. We need to understand that enemies can become your friends. In a democratic system, we need to have political tolerance. For me, I have found that Parliament is more re-energized now that U Shwe Mann has taken the role of Union House speaker.

We have rule of law, and [civilian] government. Now is the time for more cooperation from Parliament in order to better the country’s economy. The government needs to talk with constituencies’ lawmakers in order to get suggestions about how to improve local economies.

I told the president about how local authorities did not want to meet with us to talk about how we can cooperate, working together to have a better economy. So I asked the government to tell the local authorities to work with lawmakers from their constituencies. Then, we will have many successful businesses if we can work together.

There are 30 more months to work in Parliament. The president and the government should intently listen to lawmakers’ deliberations in order for the country to be more successful.

Q: If irreconcilable differences of opinion and power struggles continue to plague Parliament, what will it mean for the future of Burma?

A: Regarding power struggles, there will be no problem because there is a meeting once every week among members of the National Defense and Security Council [which includes senior parliamentarians and government ministers]. They can negotiate at the meeting. But, I found that the problem is on the ground, because there are no meetings between local authorities and lawmakers’ constituencies.

In my opinion, we should have meetings once every two weeks on township development, or once monthly. When we are in a parliamentary session, the government should be meeting with us to talk about development.