Behind the Ban: What is Parliament Afraid of?

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 8 June 2015

RANGOON — Burma’s national Parliament is a relatively peaceful place. After all, a heated debate among lawmakers is quite rare. A brawl over a bill, the likes of which we’ve recently seen in Taiwan and even Nepal, is unheard of in Burma’s five-year-old legislative chambers.

Instead of bickering, our lawmakers have taken up a number of different pastimes: having a nap, toying with an iPad, fiddling with the voting apparatus of an absent neighbor. But when journalists caught them on camera, the response was swift. Reporters were bullied by the military, kicked out of the viewing galleries from which they once watched legislative proceedings through huge planes of glass.

In an explanation to the Union Parliament on June 3, Speaker Shwe Mann said the ban was put into effect after he received a letter from a military lawmaker speaking on behalf of his uniformed colleagues in the Lower House. The lawmaker, Brig-Gen Tint San, said the bloc was embarrassed by a photo of one of its members reaching over to vote on behalf of someone else. Needless to say, the photo—splashed across the front page of a local weekly journal in early April—immediately went viral.

Reading Tint San’s letter aloud to the Union Parliament, the Speaker said he was asked to “take action to prevent the repetition of such unethical reporting,” a request he thought was “reasonable.”

In the first public explanation of the ban after about a week of stonewalling reporters, Shwe Mann said that, “given what happened, there might be similar incidents in the future that could cause unnecessary misunderstanding,” adding the characteristically broad catchall, “plus security issues.”

Mr. Speaker, it’s not reasonable for us. If you are worried about future incidents, maybe you should tell your lawmakers to behave themselves. Don’t fall asleep on the job, don’t vote for other people, and we won’t catch you! It could be worse, really. I mean, a lawmaker in Indonesia was once caught watching pornography on his computer during a legislative session. You guys aren’t doing that in there, are you?

At any rate, it would be more appropriate and sensible if you—instead of warning us—warned them, the members of Parliament, to do their jobs. Instead, you have punished reporters for doing their jobs well and showing the public what happens in Naypyidaw.

There’s one other thing you should keep in mind, Mr. Speaker. It’s not good for the “trust-building” project when Burma’s journalists, who for decades were harshly punished by the military regime, are shooed away for showing a critical image of the men in uniform. You’re not supposed to be able to singlehandedly choose what we can and can’t freely report on, that’s kind of the whole point of a free press.

Making responsible and informed decisions about what to report is our job, and in order to do that we need access to things that are in the public interest, such as the activities of our lawmakers.

As for “security issues,” we don’t buy it. What are you afraid of? Every reporter that enters the parliamentary grounds has to first go through stringent security measures. Surely a pen, a notebook, a recording device or a camera couldn’t do that much harm, could it?

Whatever the reason, the outcome is that the public’s access to information has been damaged. We can’t elect the whole legislative body, as the military appoints a large bloc. Now we can’t even monitor their activities. What rights will you reel in next?