Rows of desks were filed together in a conference hall in Rangoon's Yuzana Hotel. Test takers filtered into the room and sat down side by side as proctors handed out blue examination folders, filled with questions about basic accounting knowledge, parliamentary procedure and the national constitution. The students may have been mostly in their 40s and 50s, and have had the honor of being their country’s first democratically elected members of parliament in a generation, but — make no mistake — this was a test.
In its recent struggle to overturn more than 50 years of military rule in Burma (formally known as Myanmar), the National League of Democracy (NLD) — the party of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi that triumphed in the country's November national elections — has elected a diverse array of community leaders. Over 115 of its new legislators are former political prisoners; at least 11 other NLD lawmakers are published poets. The NLD’s parliamentarians, who assumed their seats on Feb. 1, bring rich and diverse life experiences to their new jobs and many were instrumental in challenging their country’s generals to hand over power. But one thing almost none of them have is governing experience.
“Virtually the entire NLD has been in prison, a lot are civic activists, very few are experienced,” says Vikram Nehru, a senior associate in the Carnegie Asia Program and former World Bank chief economist of the Asia region.
NLD leadership recognizes this challenge. One week after the elections Naing Ko Ko, a Ph.D. student at Australia National University’s Centre for International Governance and Justice, returned to Burma to help develop the curriculum for the party's MPs, as a consultant to the NLD's State Transition Team. The curriculum reflected one of the party's main priorities: revising the country’s 2008 military-drafted constitution. “Because the NLD wants to rewrite the constitution, we put a lot of hours [of lessons] on the constitution,” Naing Ko Ko says. The charter contains a number of provisions the NLD finds odious, such as guaranteeing the military one-quarter of seats in parliament and restricting Suu Kyi from becoming President.
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On Thursday, Burma's new parliament nominated three candidates for President — Suu Kyi was not among them. The NLD put forward Suu Kyi loyalist Htin Kyaw to be the lower house of parliament’s candidate, and given that the NLD holds the majority of seats, he in all likelihood will become the next leader of the country.
Beginning in mid-December, the NLD hosted capacity-building training, which included three-day intensive sessions around the country for each of the NLD’s roughly 900 national and regional parliamentarians to teach the curriculum. Aung Kyi Nyunt and Ko Ni, two prominent NLD lawyers, delivered lecture series on “The Constitution” and “Understanding Parliament.” Afterward, each lawmaker was given a test on the two subjects. Exam results were sent on to Suu Kyi, the Lady herself, who scolded those student lawmakers who performed poorly. “We treat our Lady as our school headmaster,” says Naing Ko Ko, who notes that because very few MPs have legal training, many failed the portion on making sense of the Burmese constitution.
In an effort to impart the know-how on fundamental legislative and constitutional issues, former campaign staff have switched gears into making sure the new lawmakers have the training they need. “All our MPs have different levels of qualifications. So it's for me to decide [with] which program we can help them,” writes Kyaw Wunna, who served as campaign manager for a number of successful NLD candidates in Rangoon.
The task is all part of the challenge of transitioning from being a party of resistance to a party of governance.
For resisting the regime, “the grassroots paid a price,” explains Chris Tun, a founder of the Inclusive Myanmar Development Initiative, an NGO that has been leading training sessions for NLD lawmakers on subjects such as international affairs and international finance. Even dissidents who managed to avoid long prison terms were often cut off from accessing higher education and employment opportunities. In most cases, “They weren’t given a chance to get a good education or to have a solid professional life,” Tun says. Many NLD lawmakers who are highly educated are medical doctors, or have skills in areas that aren’t necessarily pertinent to the day-to-day tasks of a legislator.
Tun is at the center of a number of programs and organizations working to train NLD parliamentarians and prepare governing institutions for the considerable challenges ahead. Tun's professional background is in management consulting, but in his former years he hid out with one of the many rebel groups operating in Burma's jungles. As a 17-year-old student, Tun participated in the country's massive 1988 uprising against military rule. Forced to flee the country after the regime violently put down the protests, Tun went on to receive a college education in Singapore, and eventually moved to the U.S., where he entered the consulting world. He returned permanently to his home country in 2012 as the Myanmar director of Deloitte, a white-shoe consulting firm.
Tun has used his connections to assemble a team of Burmese business leaders with on average, 10 years of experience working internationally. They have led training workshops for all 900 NLD lawmakers, in what Tun conceives as a concentrated version of an MPA — a Masters in Public Administration. The workshops offer case studies in international finance, economics and international relations.
“I try not to spend too much time on theory,” he says.
Occasionally problems arise when new parliamentarians can’t understand the lessons given by their internationally trained business leaders. “Some of our trainers use a lot of English,” he says. So Tun’s team tries to find Burmese expressions or words instead. “We don’t want them to feel intimidated."
The training sessions are expected to continue well into the parliamentary term.
“Building up the NLD from the inside out is a hard task,” says Tun.