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Government for Beginners

4 minute read
Hannah Beech / Rangoon

With its 31 buildings topped by slender spires, the home of Burma’s new parliament in the remote capital of Naypyidaw is designed to represent each of the 31 Buddhist planes of existence. Yet the legislature’s spiritual pretensions have tended to outstrip earthly reality. Few of its inaugural meetings in early 2011 convened for more than 15 minutes. A quarter of the assembly’s 664 seats are reserved for unelected military officers, and vote rigging in the 2010 elections led to the domination of the army’s proxy party.

But somewhere along the way, Burma’s invertebrate parliament, known as the national Hluttaw, has begun to develop a spine. It’s just another surprising turn in the country officially known as Myanmar, where last year’s transition from nearly five decades of military rule to a quasi-civilian government has resulted in unprecedented activity. The executive and legislative branches of government are being essentially built from scratch — by people with scant knowledge of how to do it.

(PHOTOS: Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi Makes Her Parliamentary Debut)

While a reversal of reform is possible, the flurry of democratic changes in recent months has been remarkable. Under President Thein Sein, a government that wantonly disregarded its people has now released political prisoners and partially unmuzzled the media. It even respected the opposition’s victory in April’s by-elections. After an uninspiring initial session, the legislature has gotten down to business, passing labor, investment and other key bills in areas that had languished for decades. Opposition lawmakers have even lambasted ubiquitous government corruption and abuse of ethnic minorities — outspokenness that not long ago would have led straight to jail.

The Hluttaw’s most famous legislator is Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy (NLD) won 43 of 45 seats in the April polls. (The last time the NLD took part in elections, in 1990, it also won by a landslide, but the junta ignored the results.) Suu Kyi’s NLD only controls 6.5% of parliament, but it’s a remarkable turnaround for a party whose leader was under house arrest for much of the past two decades. If nationwide polls scheduled for 2015 are free and fair, the NLD may well displace the army’s proxy party, which was trounced in April. “Conservatives who do not have a reformist mind-set will be left behind,” warned Thein Sein this month.

The Hluttaw showed signs of democratic enthusiasm even before Suu Kyi and her colleagues finally took their seats on May 2. (A dispute over the parliamentary oath delayed the NLD’s debut and elicited rare criticism of the democracy hero.) The unlikely boss of the fledgling legislature is Thura Shwe Mann, a battle-hardened general who knew nothing about the legislative process two years ago but now calls himself a democrat. “I went on the Internet a lot,” explains his son Toe Naing Mann, who serves as his father’s spokesman. “I wrote up many reports for my father on how a congress works.”

(MORE: Burma Elections: On the Campaign Trail with Aung San Suu Kyi)

Nearly everyone in parliament lacks experience. What’s the difference between a motion, a bill and a law? A federation and a confederation? All this has to be learned on the job. (Thura Shwe Mann has already employed one time-honored tactic: filibustering through coffee breaks.) Significantly, the military and its proxy party are no longer voting as a bloc. And there have been key milestones for the opposition. Last year, Tin Nwe Oo of the opposition National Democratic Force asked that the country’s full budget, which had been kept secret since 1995, be divulged. After much badgering, the government agreed. Shocked by some of the world’s lowest spending levels on basic human needs, the Hluttaw signed off this year on quadrupling health expenditure and doubling investment in education. The lawmakers also quashed the military’s pet aerospace project, which felt extravagant in a nation where one-third of people can barely feed themselves. “We’ve thrown away our rubber stamps,” jokes Tin Nwe Oo.

Now that Suu Kyi and her NLD have joined the ranks, the debate in Burma’s young parliament will doubtless become even more animated. “I’m not afraid to speak up,” says Zayar Thaw, a rapper who emerged from prison a year ago unrepentant about his political activism and now serves as an NLD legislator from Naypyidaw. “Burma is changing, but we have a long way to go.” And a whole lot of learning to do.

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