The first session of Parliament under the new National League for Democracy (NLD) government ended on Friday, with sixteen bills introduced, dozens of motions discussed and hundreds of questions raised by parliamentarians.
Over a four-month period, Parliament was in session for more than 40 days, during which nine bills were amended and enacted, while seven remain up for debate.
Lower House Speaker Win Myint told parliamentarians at the last session, to “work harder” for constituents during the break. The second session is scheduled to resume in mid-July.
He thanked constituents and lawmakers for endorsing the appointment of the house speakers, President Htin Kyaw and the cabinet members. Parliament formed four standing committees and fifteen other committees to work on issues related to civic and economic rights, peace, ethnic groups, finance and investment.
Among the approved bills was the new State Counselor Law, creating a new position for de-facto leader and head of the National League for Democracy (NLD) Aung San Suu Kyi, despite initial objections from military appointees.
Other key amendments to existing laws including the revocation of the 1975 State Protection Law—which was used to oppress political activists under military regimes—and amendments to the People’s Council and State Council Laws, which were both enacted in 1974.
Another significant hurdle for lawmakers was an attempt to amend the mandatory reporting of overnight guests under the Ward or Village Tract Administration Law. Amendments are still under discussion for this law, as well as for the Peaceful Assembly Law.
Sai Thiha Kyaw, a re-elected ethnic Shan lawmaker representing the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD), said he thinks the parliamentary session was a success, despite problems left over from the previous administration.
Because the first session focused mainly on appointments of speakers and executives, he added that there was less time to focus on ethnic affairs, particularly the protection of civilians in conflict areas.
During the session, there were complaints from lawmakers, especially those representing ethnic minority parties, that they could not speak freely.
Lawmakers said they were given instructions to stay in accordance with parliamentary laws and bylaws, which stated that they could not speak to the media unless their questions or motions were listed for discussion on the session agenda.
When Arakanese lawmaker Khin Saw Wai spoke to the media before her motion was debated, the house speaker cut the lawmaker off while she was giving background on the conflict in western Burma between the Arakan Army (AA) and the Burma Army.
Some lawmakers who wanted to speak on the condition of anonymity said there remains too much “control” in Parliament and they have become concerned about how the Parliament will use its checks and balances.
But Sai Thiha Kyaw said that the parliamentary affairs committee had not performed any checks and balances yet, because most of the issues that lawmakers faced have been inherited from the former military-backed government. He added that lawmakers difficulties would be eased after gaining experience and a better understanding of parliamentary procedures.
Speaker Win Myint told reporters at his first press conference after Friday’s session that his parliament is “free from the control of State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi—who is very disciplined and who always asks permission to come to Parliament, even for work related reasons.”
Win Myint assured the public that his actions were for the benefit of the people, notably his comments to the Minister of Electric Power and Energy regarding a blackout; last month, he urged the minister to take the electricity issue seriously and to take immediate action.
Lawmakers and voters have also been closely watching former political activists turned lawmakers speak on the issues of charter reforms, gender quotas in politics and ethnic peace.
Shan lawmakers hoped for charter reforms, which would guarantee ethnic rights, federalism and equality through official channels. But it has not yet happened and Sai Thiha Kyaw said, “such amendments must be initiated by either majority NLD lawmakers or military appointees because the SNLD represents such a small number.”
For now, women politicians are waiting to raise the issue of gender quotas in Parliament, as it could be easily rejected by male-dominated lawmakers who see a quota to increase the number of women in political leadership as unnecessary.
Prominent women rights advocate and lawmaker Shwe Shwe Sein Latt told The Irrawaddy that more awareness needs to be raised before this issue can be addressed, since the country has faced gender discrimination for decades.