Marginalisation or Consolidation? The Parliamentary Year in Review

Renaud Egreteau assesses what Myanmar’s Union legislature has (and has not) achieved over the past year.

This post is part of Tea Circle’s “2018 Year in Review” series, which looks back at developments in different fields over the last year.

An increasingly dominant view in Myanmar’s policy and diplomatic circles suggests that the Union parliament – or Pyidaungsu Hluttaw – has been steadily marginalised under the leadership of the National League for Democracy (NLD). The most sustained explanations relate to its output in lawmaking, less prolific and less visibly reform-minded compared to that of the previous legislature controlled between 2011 and 2016 by the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). Party discipline has also, by and large, been more strictly enforced on plenary votes and the submission of bills has been clearly dictated by the commanding heights of the executive branch. Lastly, unlike during the USDP term, personal rivalries have not translated into open, politically-motivated confrontations between the Union government and the parliament, suggesting that the balance of power has now resolutely shifted to the executive, and the State Counsellor Office in particular.

The argument of a sudden parliamentary deficit is, however, misplaced. Not only has the 2008 constitutional framework – for now accepted as such by the NLD – structured a legislative-executive relationship that is meant to be heavily weighted in favour of the government (and the military), but Myanmar’s parliamentary institutions are also still far from having sufficient capacity to authoritatively assert their institutional powers, collect and analyse data and information independent of the executive (or the ruling party), and therefore have a decisive influence over policymaking. Nevertheless, this does not mean that the Union legislature ought to be construed as an institution that merely rubber stamps the decisions made by the government, or its powerful “de facto leader”. The parliament, its members and staff, have continued this past year to learn the ropes while attempting to perform core legislative functions, albeit with different levels of achievement.

Since last year’s Thingyan holiday break, three legislative sessions have been held in the Union legislature: the fifth session (May-August 2017), the sixth session (October-November 2017) and the seventh session (Jan-March 2018). The eighth plenary session is scheduled to start this coming May 14. This points to an emerging annual parliamentary calendar based on a winter legislative session, a post-Thingyan session, and a post-monsoon session. A regular legislative cycle, which the previous USDP legislature struggled to find, is a prerequisite to efficient budget control and a well-functioning legislative process.

At the same time, parliamentary recesses under the NLD – when neither chamber meets to conduct legislative business – have proved long enough to allow elected MPs to get back to their constituents and attempt to fulfil their representative role through more practical – and visible – constituency-based activities. Ordinary backbenchers are indeed far more eager to work in, and travel throughout, their home districts than spend days in Naypyitaw’s isolated parliamentary compound or the lacklustre Sibin Guesthouse that they dwell in while parliament convenes.

During the past three plenary sessions, the two chambers of the Union parliament focused on a handful of technical matters, passed minor socio-economic reforms and developed various capacity-building programmes. In March 2018, they also organised without a hitch a third presidential election since 2011 and renewed the leadership of the Pyithu Hluttaw. The outgoing speaker of that house, U Win Myint, was elevated as President of the Union, while his deputy, U T. Khun Myat, replaced him as presiding officer of the 440-seat assembly. Nevertheless, the performance of the parliament in oversight and openness, and the efforts in dismantling the extant repressive laws, all appeared to have fallen short of expectations this past year.

The NLD majority adopted 33 pieces of legislation between May 2017 and March 2018. They included four mandatory bills regarding the Union Budget, Tax and National Planning, 14 bills amending existing laws as well as three bills repealing age-old or no longer relevant regulations (the Public Accountants Default Act, 1850; the Dock Workers Act, 1948; and the Municipal Law, 1984). Only twelve bills passed this year proposed relatively novel pieces of legislation. They concerned, among other subjects, taxation, transportation, business licenses and company registration, infrastructures (dams) and irrigation, as well as river conservation. During its second year in power, the NLD leadership has thus quietly sought to improve the country’s legal business, environment and fiscal governance.

There were also attempts at strengthening governing institutions. Amendments were made to the Auditor General Law, the Anti-Corruption Law while the legislation on legal aid was (lightly) revised. Furthermore, a new bill seeking to consolidate parliamentary structures and mechanisms was discussed from July 2017 and eventually signed into law in February 2018 (Myanmar Parliamentary Union Law, No. 4/2018). Permanent secretaries in the Hluttaw Office – a position already re-introduced in government ministries in 2015 – could now better streamline the functioning of the Union legislature and facilitate the coordination of capacity-building schemes and international parliamentary relations,. The two serving Directors-General of the Pyithu Hluttaw and the Amyotha Hluttaw were appointed permanent secretaries in their respective houses in January and March 2018 respectively.

However, efforts by the legislature (but more significantly, the government) to break up the arsenal of preventive and repressive measures still in force in the country – some since the colonial era – have appeared quite limited this year. Mounting criticism has been addressed at the reluctance of the NLD to promptly dismantle the many illiberal regulations that continue to be used by the state against common citizens expressing their discontent. Following intense public debate, the controversial Telecommunications Law passed in 2013 by the previous legislature was brought back to the house for discussion in July 2017. Its infamous article 66[d] on defamation has been increasingly used to suppress dissent since the NLD took power. Yet, only minor amendments to the law were passed a month later.

Likewise, a new round of debate recently started in the Amyotha Hluttaw on another contentious piece of legislation, the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law. First designed by the USDP in 2011 to regulate protests, the law was revised by the NLD in 2016. But new amendments were again discussed a year later following growing criticism from civil society organisations. The initial draft bill adopted by the Amyotha Hluttaw in March 2018 was, however, soon faulted for failing to lift existing restrictions on public demonstrations. Interestingly, several MPs drawn from the ranks of the ruling party have publicly expressed their disapproval, highlighting the first cracks in the parliamentary majority. The bill was channelled to the Pyithu Hluttaw and is now scheduled to be discussed during upcoming sessions.

Besides, the Union parliament failed to impose rigorous scrutiny upon various state institutions’ management of the Rakhine crisis, which erupted in August 2017. Strong legislative oversight is often expected after the occurrence of a major political crisis and the eruption of violence. Debates in the legislature on the crackdown launched against Rohingya militants and populations by Myanmar’s security forces and the subsequent exodus of 800,000 refugees into Bangladesh have, however, been minimal. There is also yet to be an independent investigation into state-led violence and complaints of military misconduct by the legislative branch.

Nonetheless, tensions in northern Rakhine State and the status of the Rohingya minority have regularly made their way to the plenary session. MPs from the Rakhine National Party have been at the forefront of the handful of statements that have denounced the alleged rise of armed militancy in the region. The objectives and outcomes of the UN fact-finding missions probing the Rohingya refugee crisis have also been lambasted by backbenchers from the USDP. MPs in both houses have similarly reproved the use of the term “Rohingya” by international organisations and governments.

Parliamentary questions have therefore continued to be the tool of choice for performing a tentative scrutiny of the public sector. Deputy Ministers have flocked daily to the floor this past year to answer questions about the set-up of a universal health coverage, the increment of salaries for civil servants, the national verification process of identity papers delivered to members of Myanmar’s 135 “national races” (and only them), illegal mining and armed conflicts in the Kachin and Shan states, deforestation, natural disasters and climate change, the extensive agricultural use of fertilizers, and the circulation of counterfeit 10,000-kyat banknotes.

The activities and funding of the police and armed forces have also been the object of nominal debate, particularly regarding the annual defence budget, the blockade by the military of the city of Tanai, in northern Kachin State (June 2017), as well as environmental threats posed by army-owned factories (August 2017). However, sensitive policy issues are yet to be openly, and meaningfully, discussed in the house. The constitutional presence of the military in parliament serves as a powerful obstacle to critical debate on security matters and the two speakers over the past year have relentlessly attempted to deflect potential legislative disruptions, such as theatrical stand-ups by military MPs, rude interjections and potential stage walk-outs, that would threaten the “dignified” conduct of parliamentary business imposed by legislative procedures.

Lastly, one of the lesser known functions of the Union parliament is to examine the provisions of loans offered to Myanmar by international donors or governments. This year, MPs have discussed and approved several projects sponsored by the Japan International Cooperation Agency, the UniCredit Bank Austria and the World Bank. Grippingly, they have also engaged in lively discussions urging the Union government to renegotiate the interest rates of the extensive list of loans provided by China.

Myanmar’s parliament has therefore not been “neutralised” by the new, highly disciplined ruling party – at least not more than it would be in any other Westminster-inspired or semi-presidential systems, where the executive constitutionally dominates policymaking. But despite enhanced staff capacities, the necessary emergence of a legislative routine and the streamlining of its internal functioning, the Union legislature is yet to become the transformative assembly many expected it would be after the NLD took control of it in 2016. It has yet to become a site of open, uncensored public debate, with daring parliamentary committee leaders and proactive backbenchers developing meaningful oversight and scrutiny processes. Let’s hope that in this year to come, parliamentary will start to assert its powers independent of the government, the ruling party, and the military.

Renaud Egreteau, a political scientist, is the author of “Caretaking Democratization: The Military and Political Change in Myanmar” (Oxford University Press & Hurst, 2016) and the Asia Foundation-sponsored report Parliamentary Development in Myanmar: An Overview of the Union Legislature, 2011-2016.

Photo credit: Renaud Egreteau