Old Burma Meets New in Parliament

By Kyaw Zwa Moe 30 January 2016

On the eve of the commencement of the new National League for Democracy (NLD)-dominated Parliament, The Irrawaddy revisits a story from the archives which took the pulse of the national legislature in July 2012, when Aung San Suu Kyi and her party colleagues took up their seats as lawmakers for the first time following an April by-election.

It must be the widest, smoothest road in Burma. Yet there is no traffic and not a single pothole to dodge, just a smattering of SUVs and sedans arriving at a huge gate each morning. From a distance, the vehicles look like ants scurrying across a big white board. Welcome to Burma’s Parliament!

Only vehicles belonging to MPs are allowed to drive right up to the Parliament buildings, despite one reporter remarking, “a plane could even land here!”

All cars must be scrutinized by under-vehicle search mirrors at the gate. Peering through tinted windows you can make out parliamentarians wearing khaung paung—the tradition Burmese pink or yellow turbans—cocooned in air conditioned opulence. Of course, not all MPs have their own transport and some instead arrive in communal vans.

Kyaw Zwa Moe is editor (English Edition) of the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]
Kyaw Zwa Moe is editor (English Edition) of the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]

Inside the compound, everything is huge with Parliament buildings sprawling in all directions. They are appropriately built in the royal architectural style to compliment the name of the capital—Naypyidaw, the abode of kings.

Yet it is hard to find the spirit of this “royal” city. What is its history and where is its culture?

There are no such things because it was suddenly created in the middle of nowhere in 2005 by the military junta, away from all major cities and 320 kilometers from the former capital Rangoon. Homely is not a word to associate with Naypyidaw. The Parliament building is likewise—enormous and fresh but devoid of a soul.

“This is a royal prison,” Win Htein, an MP and senior member of main opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), jokes on the top step of the Lower House building. We were waiting with his fellow parliamentarians and assorted journalists for Aung San Suu Kyi to make her first entrance to the legislature.

Win Htein, a former political prisoner, said MPs had nowhere to go in Naypyidaw. They were supposed to stay in the capital for several months until the current parliamentary session ends.

But despite its obvious flaws, the fact remains that Burma’s Parliament is a historic entity. The countries first true legislature for more than half-a-century has proven itself to also be one of the nation’s most inclusive, vibrant and relatively democratic institutions.

During Ne Win’s rule from 1962 to 1988, the country had a bogus Parliament. From 1988 to early 2011, the country was ruled by the military dictatorship without even the façade of a phoney legislature.

July 9 was a historic day as pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the nation’s most famous prisoner-turned-MP, joined the parliamentary session. This significantly changed the country’s political landscape by bestowing an element of legitimacy upon the military-dominated administration.

MPs currently hail from Suu Kyi’s NLD and many other opposition and ethnic groups, apart from the majority military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and the appointed 25 percent of armed forces appointees.

The existence of the military stooges clearly undermines the democratic credentials of the Parliament. Even so, it remains an institution of many colors—contrasting attire here represents different parties.

Most MPs from the NLD and its allies wear traditional Burmese jackets in beige, while USDP representatives instead wear white. Members from ethnic Shan Nationalities Democratic Party, known as White Tiger Party, wear their traditional Shan outfit also in beige, while other ethnic groups wear contrasting costumes.

Of course, and ominously, the most significant color is green—the army uniform. There are four columns of seats for MPs in Parliament with the far right occupied by military personnel. Only by amending the widely-condemned 2008 Constitution will this emerald stripe disappear.

Out of their eight rows, seven contain army officials from brigadier-generals and colonel to captain. The last row is shared by officers of the air force and navy who wear different uniforms.

The MPs themselves seem content to avoid tackling the military’s presence at the moment. Before joining Parliament, Suu Kyi repeatedly said one of her aims was to amend undemocratic clauses in the Constitution such as the guaranteed legislative quota for the military.

But she might not feel that the time is right to approach this yet. “We came here to collaborate, not to oppose,” Suu Kyi reportedly told party colleagues after her first day.

Htay Oo, general secretary of USDP, told me in a hallway in the People’s Parliament, “I don’t regard other political parties here as opposition. It’s difficult to define the meaning of the opposition. I think we all are here to work together for the sake of our people and country.”

Without doubt, all MPs, especially ex-military officers within the USDP, could do with more diplomatic and consensual language when they meet press—even if their words sometimes might not be wholly truthful.

When asked how the institution’s dynamic had changed due to the presence of Suu Kyi and her party, Htay Oo said, “Well, more people are here. There are no empty seats.”

Pressed on how formal the Parliament appears with the strict dress code, he paused for a moment before answering with a smile, “Oh, I’ve got used to it,” pointing to his traditional turban. “It’s our pride. We could even hold this Parliament on a lawn. But holding it here is a matter of pride.”

Undoubtedly discussions within parliamentary sessions appear to be essentially free. The MPs can bring up practically any issue from repairing potholes and the release of political prisoners to ethnic conflict and land confiscations.

“This Parliament has more freedom though its formality and style is similar to under the BSPP [Ne Win’s Burma Socialist Programme Party],” NLD MP Ohn Kyaing told me during an interval. In his former role as a journalist, Ohn Kyaing witnessed the dictator’s legislature where there was no opposition at all.

This new Parliament is certainly different. A scoop of reporters is allowed to do their job as the “fourth estate” watchdog on proceedings. Through the glass of media booths above the chamber, they keep dozens of beady eyes on the MPs.

Lots of pictures are snapped of prominent members such as Suu Kyi, the house speaker and certain billionaire tycoons. And during breaks, members mingle with the media as quotes and soundbites are traded and newsworthy material filtered out of the day’s bureaucracy.

When we run into Lower House Speaker Shwe Mann, a former high-ranking general, after the lunch, he greets the press pack in a friendly manner. “I am very pleased that you media people come to support our Parliament,” he says before warning, “but don’t ask questions now.” At least journalists were allowed to take photos.

It appears one of the greatest powers the media possesses in Parliament is to prevent MPs nodding off. “I don’t dare doze as TV cameras are shooting all the time,” joked Win Htein. “If the voters in my constituency catch me, I will be kicked out!”

Yet the way that MPs make proposals and debate issues suggests that most largely ignore the presence of the media. Nevertheless, pictures of parliamentarians sleeping and using iPads have already spread on Facebook and other social media.

After sitting through the whole day, it seems obvious that many MPs, like their children in school, are desperately longing for the end of the day.

On the steps of the Parliament building before boarding the van, reporters surrounded Col Hla Myint Soe, a military-appointed MP, and ask what proposals will be coming from his green-clad section. Hla Myint Soe reportedly played a key role in the brutal crackdown on the 2007 pro-democracy Saffron Revolution.

The colonel was friendly and the reporters kept throwing questions. But another military official interrupted, grabbed his arm and took him away saying abruptly, “We have things to do.” A fitting end to a day of Burma’s Parliament.