Friday, September 22, 2017

Day 1: NLD takes its parliamentary seats

It had been a long wait: almost three months since the election that swept Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy to victory, but also decades of being kept on the sidelines by military control. Finally Myanmar’s NLD MPs took their seats in parliament as the ruling party.

U Win Myint of the National League for Democracy arrives in parliament yesterday. Photo: Aung Khant / The Myanmar TimesU Win Myint of the National League for Democracy arrives in parliament yesterday. Photo: Aung Khant / The Myanmar Times

The sea of politicians arriving yesterday in the grand entrance hall of the Pyithu Hluttaw, or lower house, was greeted by a throng of media and observers keen to witness the historic occasion. But the star of the show disappointed the crowd and avoided them, entering by a side door.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s low-key arrival marked what turned out to be a more muted affair than might have been expected for the ushering-in of the most democratically elected parliament these MPs had ever experienced.

But despite her customary staid demeanour there was no doubt this was Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s moment, and the parliament looked and felt a very different place than it did just days before.

The NLD’s new arrivals were in an optimistic mood. Gone was the Union Solidarity and Development Party’s white and green-dressed dominance. Instead the hall was filled with MPs wearing NLD red – or more precisely a kind of pale brick orange.

If asked, they said they were happy to be there, and the tempered atmosphere was perhaps in great part due to a sense of awe many of the MPs felt at the task ahead of them.

“Today is a most special day. We can finally start to implement our dreams and make them come true,” said Daw Khin San Hlaing, a lower house preparatory committee member who has been a member of the NLD since 1988 and won her third election last November.

She said that while she had never lost hope that this day would finally come – “because it was the will of the people” – it had been a long wait.

Smiling, she added she had felt very happy to enter the chamber that morning, but at the same time she had been somewhat overwhelmed by the realisation that after all these years in opposition she was now responsible for seeing “the will of the people carried out for the next five years”.

Even the ethnic party representatives, fewer in number than many had predicted would be the case prior to the election, were taken by the parliament’s new atmosphere.

New MP makes register in Pyithu Hluttaw on February 1. Photo: Aung Khant / The Myanmar TimesNew MP makes register in Pyithu Hluttaw on February 1. Photo: Aung Khant / The Myanmar Times

“The first thing I noticed was the change in colour,” said Daw Khin Saw Wai of the Arakan National Party, who had also been a member of parliament while the UDSP was in charge.

“Under the last government everything was [USDP colours] white and green. Now parliament is all red,” she added, noting however that the NLD’s obvious strength in numbers made her concerned whether there would be sufficient “checks and balances”.

But it wasn’t just the colours that had changed. The number of female representatives was also noticeably higher.

Dressed in eye-catching ethnic garb, Daw Nan Moe, of the Ta’ang National Party, drew a lot of attention. But it wasn’t just her sparkly outfit that made her stand out.

At 32, she is one of the new generation of younger female parliamentarians who couldn’t be more different from the elderly male statesmen who claimed the previous government as their own.

VOXPOP: Yangon residents express high hopes for new hluttaw

Apparently still adjusting to her new political position, when asked to confirm the name of her party, she started to name a Ta’ang women’s group before correcting herself.

“Today I feel excited, because I have to start a great job for my ethnic people. We are a small group but there are also a lot of ethnic people in the NLD so I am hopeful we can work together,” she said.

She said she was happy to see more women in parliament today. Asked if she thought one of the four Speakers should have been a woman she laughed and said, “I wish!”

Other female MPs also said they saw today as just the beginning. “At the moment there are just 13 percent women parliamentarians. I want us to get more in future so men can see what the women can do,” said Daw Myint Myint Soe, NLD member of Botahtaung.

If the women MPs had hopes that the new government would bring greater gender equality, ethnic representatives said they were feeling positive that the day marked the beginning of improved ethnic rights.

“The big challenge for the ethnic parties is to change the constitution,“ said Sai Thi Ha Kyaw, Shan Nationalities League for Democracy MP for Mine-ye/Mong Yai in northern Shan.

“But I hope that this time the NLD will manage to do that. Under the USDP I didn’t expect change, but now I am optimistic,” he added.

Less vocal, or even visible, were members of the USDP. Journalists agreed they had found it difficult to find a single USDP member to interview. However a glance in the chamber, where just a handful of the former ruling party’s members now hold seats, made it clear why. The tiny section of the parliament dressed in green and white was a stark reminder of just how scarce USDP MPs now are.

And of just 41 USDP MPs elected to the lower house, three were absent by virtue of being still members of the current government, reducing their ranks even further.

As ever, the military in their green uniforms sat, unexpressive and secure in their guaranteed 25pc of seats.

Read more: Meet the Speakers

Yet in some ways the absent opposition politicians didn’t miss that much. This highly anticipated opening event lasted little more than an hour. The nominations for Speaker and deputy speaker were announced without objection and then business closed for the day.

Still, international observers, while noting the absence of any real buzz about the event, said they were happy to see it go smoothly.

UK ambassdor Andrew Patrick said it was “an historic day” and he was “pleased to be there”.

“This is the first time since 1960 there have been so many people democratically elected. There are still 25pc that are not, but it is a great step forward for this country,” he said.