On Eve of New Parliament, Incoming Lawmakers Eager to Get to Work

By Yen Saning 29 January 2016

RANGOON — Newly elected lawmakers toured Naypyidaw’s Union Parliament on Wednesday, where they will work for the next five years to enact laws and represent their constituencies.

Burma’s second Parliament is scheduled to convene on February 1. Unlike the country’s first Parliament—assembled in 2011 and dominated by the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP)—the incoming government will be largely shaped by Burma’s main opposition party: out of 491 elected MPs in the Upper and Lower houses, 390 are from the National League for Democracy (NLD). The remaining 101 members represent various political entities including ethnic nationality parties and the USDP. In addition, there are 166 seats across both houses reserved for military members.

‘Women’s Development in All Sectors’

Newly elected Shwe Shwe Sein Latt won her Upper House seat Pegu No. 3 representing the NLD. She has visited the Parliament and studied the proceedings. “I already have a lot of questions I’d like to ask even now,” she told The Irrawaddy, adding that she has also “prepared personally” for the role.

Her interests are wide-ranging, but one of the most important and urgent issues she hopes to tackle is the poor water quality in her township, Daik-U, which she reported has been contaminated with lead, arsenic and iron.

“My interest is in women and health, women and the environment and women and energy,” she said.

As the founder and director of Phan Tee Ein, a grassroots organization that works to rehabilitate women who have suffered from sexual violence, Shwe Shwe Sein Latt plans to put forward women’s issues in the Parliament and contribute to “women’s development in all sectors.”

To this end, she said she would partner with other female MPs and encourage men to take an active role in the process, which she hopes will lead to gender-sensitive budgeting to help women and children in the health sector.

If such a position is assigned, Shwe Shwe Sein Latt said she is ready to serve in parliamentary committees and is keen to draft bills and contribute to constitutional amendments.

“I am also interested in women’s involvement in the peace process,” she added.

Describing herself as a family breadwinner rooted in her community, Shwe Shwe Sein Latt said one of the challenges of her new role will be working in Naypyidaw, away from her home.

“We don’t want to [attend Parliament full-time],” she said. “We want to get in touch with our voters.” Yet she remains confident that she will be able to manage and adapt to the circumstances.

‘We Have Responsibilities to Fulfill Our Voters’ Needs’

For re-elected ethnic Shan MP Sai Thiha Kyaw representing the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD), his main priorities in Parliament center strongly on the “amendment of the Constitution, federal and ethnic rights, and equality.”

The Lower House MP-elect said the first session of Parliament—which runs for several weeks—will proceed with the selection of speakers, the president and cabinets. Then, he said, their focus will shift. “As we have responsibilities to fulfill our voters’ needs, we will be submitting proposals and questions related to our constituencies,” he explained. “There will be discussion on either countrywide issues or ethnics affairs issues.”

“As for our party,” he said of the SNLD, “we will continue to work for our constituencies.” He looks forward to taking part in discussions on issues of federalism. “Our main reason to be in the parliament is to amend the constitution and [to promote] the ethnic groups’ right to equality.”

Since the NLD won most seats—nearly 80 percent—Sai Thiha Kyaw pointed out that the party will have the power to shape the Parliament according to their interests, and smaller parties like the SNLD will face challenges in gaining influence.

“For our ethnic parties, even if we want to amend the constitution, we can’t initiate and submit proposals since we are not even 20 percent of the Parliament,” he explained, adding that ethnic parties’ MPs will have to engage in these opportunities as they are introduced by the NLD.

In the upcoming Parliament, he expects that MPs like himself will realistically only be able to focus on general ethnic affairs, rather than large legislative changes.

While Burma’s previous Parliament was guided by the policies of the USDP, the upcoming legislature will be heavily influenced by the NLD, which has promised to work toward the development of the country. It has left ethnic party representatives like Sai Thiha Kyaw unsure of their role in this changing political landscape.

“For our ethnic people, we need to wait and see whether we have to be the opposition or an alliance,” he said.

‘People Throw Trash Into Rivers. We Rely on Using This Water’

Zaw Thein, a newly elected NLD Lower House MP, won his seat in his native Wakema Township in Irrawaddy Division. He said his preparation to enter Parliament includes participation in a capacity building training and study of the Constitution, party policy, budgeting and international affairs.

After his first visit to Parliament, Zaw Thein said he was impressed with and surprised by the efficiency of the legislative body. “It’s interesting to see that the parliament discussions are systematic,” he said, pointing out that time is not wasted in the way that many people assume.

For Zaw Thein, the most urgent issue is environmental. “In Irrawaddy Division, in some cities, people throw trash into rivers and streams. That water gets polluted. For us, we rely on using this water.” He hopes to consult with academics and legal experts to explore how to prohibit littering and to conserve waterways.

As someone who was educated abroad, his main personal interest is in improving schooling for youth, and he hopes the NLD will assign him to a committee where he can work on educational issues. He envisions enacting legislation around public libraries and to first establish a library in his hometown, then throughout Irrawaddy Division, and later nationwide.

Budgeting is an area Zaw Thein expects will be challenging for new MPs like himself. But he plans to submit questions and proposals to the parliament based on the needs of his constituency—one such request has been for facilities and opportunities that would allow for high school students to take their matriculation exams locally, rather than in nearby towns designated for that purpose.

‘Our Ultimate Goal: Federalism’

Htoo May, an Upper House MP from the Arakan National Party (ANP) was also among those who visited the Parliament on Wednesday. She said she already knows which parliamentary committee she would like to be part of: the drafting committee. Her desire to write bills comes from her interest in rule of law, not unrelated to her “top priority” of amending the 2008 Constitution.

“Everyone, not only NLD MPs, needs to work to amend the Constitution to make it in line with democratic norms within five years,” she said, adding that she hopes this will “bring about change in our country.”

“Since whatever we do depends on the constitution, we need to work toward decentralization to share power to reach our ultimate goal: federalism,” she explained.

The young Arakan MP described her next priority as revenue sharing from natural resources, so she can improve living conditions in “the least developed and poor states like Chin and Arakan.” In her opinion, her home state’s most basic developmental need is access to better transportation infrastructure.

Citing her own inability to access high quality public education in Arakan State, Htoo May said she would also like to develop this sector so people from her area do not need to migrate to Rangoon to go to school.

People’s high expectations remain the main challenge for incoming MPs, Htoo May thinks. “We will try for change,” she promised, but said that an open mind will be required of her fellow parliamentary colleagues. “When an MP from the majority submits a new bill or proposes to change the current constitution, I’d like other MPs, including the military MPs, to vote not by looking at the party but by favoring the benefit of the people.”