Parliament must hold the government to account

The many restrictions that have been placed on the NLD’s lawmakers are, frankly, disturbing.

ONE of the defining features of Myanmar’s transition to democracy has been the strength and independence of its national legislature, the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw.

For the first few months of its existence back in early 2011, the hluttaw was billed as the “15-minute parliament” by opposition activists. With the Union Solidarity and Development Party enjoying a massive majority, it was expected to serve as a rubber stamp for the government, paying only lip service to the separation of powers in the 2008 constitution.

But under the leadership of the speakers – Thura U Shwe Mann in particular – it emerged as an important institution. Almost from day one, a significant number of lawmakers showed they were intent on holding the government to account, while also listening and responding to the needs of their constituents.

The arrival of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy cohort, following the party’s resounding victory in the 2012 by-election, brought additional knowledge, experience and credibility. The non-partisanship between USDP, NLD and ethnic lawmakers on a broad range of issues, such as the constitution, was a notable feature of the 2011-16 legislature.

But this was not a pre-ordained sequence of events. It was to some extent driven by Shwe Mann’s desire to build a power base for himself in the legislature, in order to challenge President U Thein Sein. Had the speaker chosen, he could have indeed turned the hluttaw into a rubber stamp.

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Yet this ambition manifested in ways that were largely positive for the country: extensive vetting of draft legislation, close scrutiny of the budget, detailed discussion around constitutional reform, and greater public confidence in the reform process, to name but a few.

It is still early days for the new administration; the 100-day mark has not been reached. But some clear indications are emerging that Suu Kyi and the NLD will keep a close rein on lawmakers to ensure they don’t deviate far, if at all, from the party line. Decisions are being made on high, together with a handful of trusted lieutenants in the legislature. The rest are expected to follow suit.

To some extent this is understandable. The NLD can hardly afford an outbreak of disunity so early into its term in office. The party’s legislative bloc also contains many individuals who have only recently become members, and they remain an unknown quantity to the leadership. One only has to look at the state of the USDP to see the potential dangers in allowing factions and personal rivalries to emerge.

Jared Downing / Frontier

Jared Downing / Frontier

In other ways, though, it is concerning. Despite how it may appear, the people of Myanmar did not vote for Aung San Suu Kyi to become president on November 8 last year. (Nor did they vote for U Htin Kyaw, for that matter.) They selected individuals to represent them in the Amyotha Hluttaw, Pyithu Hluttaw, and their local state or regional hluttaw. 

The members of the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw in Nay Pyi Taw are thus elected by the people. They need to be given the leverage to balance the need for loyalty to a party or leader with their responsibilities to constituents. So far, the NLD does not appear to have got the balance correct.

The many restrictions that have been placed on the party’s representatives – for example, banning them from speaking to the media, attending civil society gatherings without permission or asking unvetted questions in parliament – are, frankly, disturbing. When the NLD promised “real change” during the election campaign, few suspected this is what the party intended.

It is a fine line between maintaining unity and stifling dissent. As Suu Kyi and the NLD would well know, political systems that require all to speak with one voice are far from democratic. In trying to exert strict controls, it is also possible to unnecessarily prompt rebellion.

The NLD received a huge mandate from the people of Myanmar last November. It represents both an opportunity and a responsibility ­– a power to be exercised with caution, and in the best interests of all.

This editorial first appeared in Frontier Vol. 2, Issue 1, published on June 30.

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