RANGOON — On Monday Burma will convene its first popularly-elected Parliament in more than half a century, a historic moment unthinkable just five years ago in a country locked under decades of military rule.
Burma’s powerful army overthrew the last democratically-elected Parliament in 1962. The rule of the junta was characterized by economic mismanagement and the oppression of the country’s citizens.
Elections in 2010, widely criticized as neither free nor fair, ushered in a semi-civilian government backed by the military. President Thein Sein embarked on a series of economic and political reforms, culminating in last year’s free elections, which Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won by a landslide.
The opposition’s resounding victory has been accepted by the ruling party and the military establishment, which optimists hope will pave the way for a new and peaceful chapter in Burma’s often bloody history of war, revolution and crackdowns.
The NLD won 255 seats out of 440 in the Lower House and 135 out of 224 in the Upper House, handing the party the majority it needed to form a government. In contrast, the outgoing ruling party, the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), only secured 30 seats in the Lower House and 11 seats in the Upper House.
The NLD’s domination could lead to a more active Parliament with new policies quickly driven through, but a lack of political pluralism is a concern, said Khin Zaw Win, director at Tampadipa Institute and a Burma political analyst.
The lack of a strong opposition can weaken the checks and balances that allow a healthy democracy to thrive, he said.
“On the one hand, this could strengthen democracy, but on the other, we have a weaker multi-party system. There is a danger when a single party dominates the politics in a democratic system. It could lead to either good or bad results,” he told Myanmar Now in an interview.
Speculation Over President’s Role
There is much speculation about who will be installed as president by the NLD-led government.
The 2008 Constitution bans Suu Kyi from the presidency as her two sons are British nationals, but the popular leader has publicly said she would be “above the president” and is expected to nominate a loyal aide to the post. Some analysts have also suggested that Article 59 (F) of the Constitution, which blocks her presidency, could be suspended, leading her to take the helm.
If that is to happen, the party would need the cooperation of the military members of the Parliament, which, according to the charter, hold a fixed bloc of 25 percent of seats in both houses of the national Parliament as well as in state and region assemblies.
Any amendment of the Constitution would require the approval of more than 75 percent of MPs, making the military representatives the kingmakers.
In addition, the key ministries of defense, home affairs and border affairs remain under the control of the military. This week, outgoing president Thein Sein has sought to widen these powers by tabling a last-minute proposal to bring the ministry of immigration under the wing of the home affairs ministry.
The continued dominant role of the military in the political landscape means the NLD government will need to make compromises with military leaders. As such, it is in a strong position to make an immediate impact on issues such as healthcare and education, but has less sway over security matters, according to Myat Thu, head of the Yangon School of Political Science.
“According to the Constitution, the military holds absolute power regarding the security of the country,” he told Myanmar Now.
The military also holds six out of 11 seats on the powerful National Defense and Security Council.
Too Much Power?
On Monday’s opening session of the Parliament, the mostly newly-elected MPs will choose a chairman, who will then handle procedures to elect speakers of the two houses of the Parliament.
The speakers play a powerful role as, under the Constitution, they can develop strong policy-making autonomy from the executive branch.
On Jan. 28, Suu Kyi confirmed in a meeting with NLD MPs that her party will choose Win Myint, an NLD MP and former High Court advocate, as Speaker of the Lower House and Mahn Win Khaing Than, an ethnic Karen and NLD MP, as Upper House Speaker.
The latter is a grandson of Mann Ba Khaing, a national hero who was assassinated together with Aung San, founding father of modern Burma and the father of Aung San Suu Kyi.
The two deputy speakers nominated for the Upper House and Lower House would be Aye Thar Aung, a senior leader of the Arakan National Party and a longtime political comrade of Suu Kyi, and T. Khun Myat, a USDP MP and leader of a people’s militia group in northern Shan State, respectively.
Shwe Mann, a powerful former general, USDP lawmaker and former speaker, was credited with breathing life into the last Parliament and ensuring the position served as a counter-balance to executive power.
With such a strong mandate, the NLD can do much—and swiftly—to introduce reforms that help ordinary citizens long mired in poverty, said Tampadipa’s Khin Zaw Win. He remains concerned however about the emergence of a new authoritarianism.
“My personal concerns are about a single person controlling the Parliament and the government. Would the MPs who have to obey this person dare say anything that would go against this person’s wishes?” he said.
“In that case, it’s the public and the media who have to intervene. I want to see positive changes.”
For some people, however, it would be difficult for the NLD to make immediate changes, as it first needs to undo decades of mismanagement and to curb the control of military.
“Our people are expecting significant changes. From peace to education and job opportunities,” said Zay Yar Linn, a university graduate.
“The NLD cannot fulfill our hopes immediately as it has many challenges. If they can do 30 percent more reforms than the previous government, it would mean the NLD has been successful.”