MPs Asked to ‘Seek Approval’ for Civil Society Engagements

By Moe Myint 26 July 2016

RANGOON — Lower House Speaker Win Myint has appealed to parliamentarians to inform him of workshops, meetings and trainings beforehand in order to gain official approval for such events; the request applies to sessions to which MPs have been invited by non-governmental and civil society organizations.

Arakan National Party lawmaker Pe Than published the appeal on his Facebook page on Monday, saying, “It’s unclear whether it is a letter of appeal or instructions.”

Pe Than said that MPs had not received any explanation for the newly issued appeal. Questions were also raised when it was revealed that the letter had not been introduced to parliamentarians belonging to the Upper House.

“The previous Parliament had no precedent for this, and now, the new Parliament is trying to adopt new barriers, that’s why I am saying we are losing our lawmakers’ rights,” Pe Than said, describing civil society and non-governmental organizations as “our partners.”

He added that generally, when representatives from civil society or non-governmental organizations—CSOs and NGOs—organize an event, they inform parliamentarians only two to three days before the workshop or seminar. This new restriction will cause detrimental delays, said Pe Than.

On Tuesday evening, the Lower House released a second statement defending the earlier letter.

It said that the parliamentary leadership was not intentionally restricting the rights of lawmakers or attempting to control the relationship between legislators and civil society organizations. However, legislators who represent one of the Lower House committees or are individually connected with outside organizations will not be permitted to use the Parliament hall for discussions, meet-and-greet sessions, or hosting outside organizations under a legislator’s name.

A senior official within the Lower House Office also told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday that Win Myint’s letter was not intended to restrict the legislators’ rights, but to inform the Parliament about any trips or absences.

“As far as I know, it’s just a misunderstanding [with the lawmakers],” said the official, on the condition of anonymity. “Actually, the purpose is not what they think.”

She said that a similar announcement had been made during former Lower House Speaker Shwe Mann’s term, in 2011. It came in the form of a letter to the legislators reminding them to inform Shwe Mann of trips abroad. But it is unclear whether the lawmakers had to inform the Speaker of all types of invitations, including local seminars.

Parliament members are waiting to see how Lower House Speaker Win Myint will deal with legislators who disregard the appeal.

“Even if we don’t follow his instructions, there is no law to take action against us,” Pe Than pointed out.

Dr. Khin Zaw Win, director of the Tampadipa Institute, which has provided capacity building workshops for lawmakers over the past five years, criticized the Lower House Speaker’s move as an attempt to “control” members of parliament. The Speaker’s main duty, he said, should be to work toward enacting or amending laws.

“I really don’t like it,” Khin Zaw Win said of the restrictions, also expressing concern about how MPs representing parties outside of the National League for Democracy (NLD) parliamentary majority would react to what he perceived as increased NLD supervision.