Thursday, September 21, 2017

Taking stock of hluttaw’s first session

As members of parliament have dispersed to their constituencies during this month’s parliamentary recess, observers have been mulling over the past session, the first to be dominated by the National League for Democracy after years in opposition. How did NLD MPs, debating questions under the supervision of NLD-appointed Speakers, and addressing an NLD government, compare with their predecessors in the Union Solidarity and Development Party?

Members of the 2016-21 class of parliament chat during a legislative session in the hluttaw chamber in Nay Pyi Taw. Photo: Aung Htay Hlaing / The Myanmar TimesMembers of the 2016-21 class of parliament chat during a legislative session in the hluttaw chamber in Nay Pyi Taw. Photo: Aung Htay Hlaing / The Myanmar Times

Some differences are clear. The newcomers tend to be younger, more of them are female, fewer have military backgrounds and all of them are strongly imbued with the sense that they are representing the will of the huge majority of the people, finally unleashed.

On the other hand, many are relatively lacking in experience, either of parliamentary procedures or day-to-day governance. Their backgrounds are in journalism, academia, civil society or small business. A large number have been political prisoners. Though most have not served in the military, they have displayed their own kind of discipline, often formidable, under a leadership prone to issuing strict commandments.

Hluttaw opened on February 1 and adjourned for recess on June 10. From the experience of that four-month period, certain observations can be made.

One is that the distinction between the executive and legislative branches of government was sometimes blurred, though not in the same way as it had been in the last parliament, when the links between the USDP and the military were well-known and dissent emerged only rarely. Other than the dramatic split between then-president U Thein Sein and then-Speaker Thura U Shwe Mann, along with their respective supporters, the ranks of green uniforms, whether civilian or military, remained serried. The parliamentary majority supported the military, which supported the government, and parliament rarely if ever drew accolades for placing checks or balances on the executive.

Since the NLD took over, some have noted a different dynamic, driven by the governing party’s overwhelming majority in both houses, and its sometimes strained accommodation of an opposition formed from the diminished USDP, the constitutionally secured military bloc and scattered ethnic MPs. Above them all is the towering authority of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in her various capacities.

All this means that parliament does not exercise much of a checking or balancing effect on the government, says Sai Thiha Kyaw, one of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy’s 12 MPs. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership of the party, her national and international prominence as foreign minister, and her assumption of the new role of state counsellor can “overwhelm” hluttaw members, he said.

But lower house Speaker U Win Myint denied that claim. At a June 10 press conference, he said Daw Aung San Suu Kyi kept her distance from hluttaw and visited only if she had good reason to attend, and then only with the Speaker’s permission.

Arakan National Party member U Pe Than, MP for Myebon township, Rakhine State, said the NLD Speaker himself had been known to dampen down attempts by members to confront the administration.

He referred to an exchange in the Pyithu Hluttaw earlier this month, when the Speaker was criticised for apparently trying to dissuade MPs from asking questions that showed the government in a poor light. Rakhine State MP U Pe Than had then compared U Win Myint unfavourably with his predecessor, Thura U Shwe Mann, adding, “It looks like the Speaker is putting pressure on MPs not to criticise the government.”

The censure came after an NLD MP from Bago Region, U Myint Oo, had asked a question about government support for village self-help schemes to generate electricity.

U Win Myint scolded the MP, saying, “You should think about your question. What good does it do to ask about what the previous government did?”

The Speaker advised MPs to make sure their questions were in line with the times and current conditions. “You’re asking about an old case that the previous government did not publicise or resolve,” he said.

U Win Myint later said that his intention had been to inform members of the relevant procedures rather than to “warn” them. MP U Myint Oo later reasserted his right to raise questions in parliament on behalf of his constituents.

An earlier incident showed the new Speaker’s growing mastery of parliamentary tactics.

Two MPs who tried to urge parliament to act to stop outbreaks of fighting in Rakhine and Shan states had complained of being sidelined by the Pyithu Hluttaw Speaker. Daw Khin Saw Wai, an Arakan National Party MP for Rathedaung township, Rakhine State, tried to submit an urgent proposal pressing the government to support the delivery of aid to displaced people in the north of the state. U Win Myint rejected the proposal.

And when Shan State’s Manton township MP Nan Moe made a similar proposal on May 23 for aid to displaced families, the Speaker asked her to frame her remarks in a way that would not oblige the government to act.

“When I was about to submit an urgent proposal about displaced people and about education for displaced children, the Speaker asked me to change my proposal into a question,” Nan Moe told The Myanmar Times on May 25. A question can be answered, but a proposal requires action.

“It was like asking a woman about to give birth to hang on for a bit,” she said, adding that she intends to pursue the issue.

Daw Khin Saw Wai said her urgent proposal relating to Rakhine State was rejected on grounds that a similar measure was already under discussion in the upper house, the Amyotha Hluttaw.

U Win Myint said he had acted in accordance with hluttaw rules and regulations.

Many have criticised the new parliament for truncated sessions, with 15-minute days not uncommon. But as to the record of legislative achievement, the Pyithu Hluttaw took action on 83 starred questions – those that were permitted for discussion during the session they were proposed in – as well as 103 non-starred questions and 12 proposals. Of the 16 bills proposed, nine were adopted and seven remain to be debated. In the Amyotha Hluttaw, 33 starred questions, six non-starred questions and one proposal were dealt with, said the upper chamber’s Speaker Mahn Win Khaing Than on June 10.

Another achievement was the abolition of the notorious 1975 State Protection Act, also known as the “Law to Safeguard the State Against the Dangers of Those Desiring to Cause Subversive Acts”, said ANP MP U Pe Than. The electoral law was also amended to extend the life of the election commission. Measures governing the appointment of ward or village administrators and peaceful protest are still under consideration in hluttaw.

From a business perspective, contractor U Nay Oo said hluttaw should spend less time on human rights and more time on the economy. “What about laws on a telephone tax and import-export restrictions?” he asked.

Bago Region MP U Myint Oo, who served in the last parliament, put most shortcomings down to inexperience. “The hluttaw hasn’t put much pressure on the government yet,” he said. “A lot of MPs in the old parliament were not really politicians. The new ones are, and they’re young, so they will be more active,” he said.

Translation by Khant Lin Oo and Khine Thazin Han