Greater Political Role Awaits New Parliament Speaker Shwe Mann

By Tha Lun Zaung Htet 1 August 2013

RANGOON — Lower House Speaker Shwe Mann officially became Union Parliament speaker on Wednesday. Lawmakers said the position will give him a greater role in resolving challenges during Burma’s democratic transition, such as reaching a national peace agreement and amending the country’s undemocratic Constitution.

In a first speech in his new role, Shwe Mann called for a sustainable nationwide peace agreement with ethnic rebel groups and for an end to inter-communal violence between Buddhist and Muslim communities.

“I earnestly request the responsible persons to manage [the peace process] fairly in order to achieve permanent ceasefire agreements, and [request] the public to cooperate and promote the peace-making process while political dialogue is under way,” he told lawmakers on Wednesday.

The chairman of the ruling Union Development and Solidarity Party (USDP) also urged “all citizens to live in love and harmony to prevent riots like those that happened in Rakhine State, Meikhtila town, the western part of Bago [Pegu] Division and Lashio from erupting again, and to respect and obey the laws of the state.”

Touching upon the issue of Burma’s development, he said, “We need to understand and practice multiparty democracy and market-oriented economic systems with a growing trend towards development.”

Shwe Mann took over as Union Parliament Speaker from Khin Aung Myint, the Upper House Speaker.

The Union Parliament speaker represents the two chambers of Burma’s legislature, the upper and the lower houses. The position, which holds great political power, is rotated between the speakers of the two chambers every two and a half years, midway through the government’s five-year mandate.

President Thein Sein and his cabinet attended Wednesday’s ceremony in Naypyidaw and military leaders, including Commander-in-Chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, were also present.

Shwe Mann will stay on as Union Parliament speaker until 2015 when he is likely to run in the elections as leader of the USDP, the ruling party which comprises members of Burma’s former military regime.

Shwe Man was the third most powerful general in Burma’s former military junta, after Snr-Gen Than Shwe and Vice-Snr-Gen Maung Aye.

The USDP leader has been seeking a greater political role and his new position would give him more influence on key challenges during Burma’s democratic transition, such as the peace process and amending the 2008 Constitution.

Early last month, Shwe Mann openly questioned Thein Sein’s government’s handling of peace talks, signaling a growing political rivalry between the two USDP leaders.

Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, meanwhile, appears to be moving closer to Shwe Mann, as both parliamentary leaders want to gain more influence on decision-making by Thein Sein’s government. Their cooperation is also crucial to establishing parliamentary support for the peace process or constitutional amendments.

Several opposition lawmakers said they hoped that Shwe Mann’s new role as Union Parliament Speaker would allow him to bring various political parties together and achieve progress on these complex challenges.

“Since he now holds that position, he can serve the state by using his great charisma in handling parliamentary affairs,” said Thein Nyunt, a Lower House MP for the New Democracy Party, adding that he wanted Shwe Mann to bridge the divisions between government and lawmakers.

Phyo Min Thein, lawmaker with the National League for Democracy, said he hoped that Shwe Mann and Suu Kyi could cooperate in order to find a way to amend the 2008 Constitution. Drafted by the military, it is widely seen as undemocratic and contains a provision that prevents Suu Kyi from becoming president.

“Thura U Shwe Mann has a very good relationship with Daw Aung San Su Kyi. He may be supportive to amending the Constitution … and has political vision,” said Phyo Min Thein.

“The time he is going to serve as Union Parliament speaker is really critical for amendment of the Constitution and for the peace process.”