RANGOON — What looks likely to be a querulous Parliament session will open in Naypyidaw on Monday, with legislators set to discuss a series of controversial measures on voting eligibility, inter-religious marriage and protestor rights, as well as new laws aimed at modernizing Burma’s business realm.
Khin Maung Swe, leader of the small National Democratic Force (NDF) party, told The Irrawaddy that the coming session would be hectic, with MPs likely to be deluged with an array of diverse topics covering business, governance, religion and the economy.
“There are so many things that will come up in the Parliament,” he said. “We have to cover many issues.”
But with a committee made up 109 lawmakers scheduled to report on Jan. 31 about the possibility of revising Burma’s controversial 2008 Constitution, charter change is likely to overshadow discussion of the myriad reforms set to go before the legislature.
While the Constitution contains numerous provisions that opponents decry as undemocratic, the change debate has centered around Article 59(f), a clause that would prevent Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), from realizing her ambition of becoming president of Burma after national elections in 2015.
The 1991 Nobel Peace Prize laureate took her Constitution reform roadshow to the thinly populated and mostly Christian northwestern Chin region this week, where on Friday she appeared to backtrack on a recent party commitment to contest the 2015 election, irrespective of whether or not the Constitution is amended in her favor.
“We have to wait and see if they [Parliament] will amend it or not. We will decide depending on their work. But it is too early yet to talk about what we will do or what we will decide,” Suu Kyi said.
Constitution aside, some lightening-rod proposed legislation will be put before MPs in the coming weeks, with clashes looming over two measures that opponents say are discriminatory: a proposal to curb marriages between Buddhist women and men of other faiths, and a bill aimed at restricting the rights of temporary ID holders to form political parties or vote—with both measures seen as targeting Muslims.
In the run up to the 2010 elections, in which the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) won a landslide victory, thousands of Muslim Rohingya were given temporary IDs, or “white cards,” to enable them to vote—likely a measure aimed at preventing Arakanese nationalists from dominating the tinderbox western region.
If passed by the Upper House, the measure will go before the Lower House, where government-aligned MP Shwe Maung told The Irrawaddy he will oppose the bill.
“I plan to discuss the measure about not allowing white card holders to vote or form political parties,” said Shwe Maung, a Rohingya parliamentarian representing Buthidaung in Arakan State.
If the bill comes to the Lower House, a clash looms. Complaining that “currently temporary ID card holders can form a political party,” Aye Maung, chairman of the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP), which has its power base in Arakan, said his party would push for tighter controls on political participation.
“Political parties should only be organized by citizens of Myanmar,” Aye Maung told The Irrawaddy.
Clashes between Arakan-based Muslims on the one hand—mostly involving Rohingya but also including other, recognized ethnic minorities such as Kaman Muslims, and Arakanese Buddhists on the other, have recurred since June 2012. As of November 2013, 143,000 people were listed by the United Nations as displaced in Arakan State, with the bulk of those in camps Rohingya Muslims.
And while Suu Kyi has been traveling the country pushing for reform of Burma’s Constitution, chauvinist monk U Wirathu has been on a roadshow of his own, promulgating the 969 movement’s anti-Islam gospel in venues around the country.
Next week Wirathu will tell thousands of fellow Buddhist monks in Burma’s second city Mandalay of the perceived need to curb interfaith marriage—putting pressure on MPs to pass a measure forcing non-Buddhist men to convert to Buddhism if they want to marry a Burmese Buddhist woman. The proposal is opposed by the NLD and other reform-inclined MPs.
Less-divisive matters are also likely to come up in Parliament over the coming weeks. Topping the agenda for the NDF, which has 12 national Parliament seats, is scrapping the controversial Article 18 of the Peaceful Assembly and Procession Law, which requires Burmese citizens to receive police approval in order to stage a protest.
“According to the Constitution, every citizen has the right to make a demonstration anywhere in the country,” former political prisoner Khin Maung Swe said.
Altering the Peaceful Assembly Law now appears to have broad support, with both the USDP and NLD speaking in favor of ditching Article 18, under which protestors have been jailed—punishments at odds with the reformism espoused by the current government.
“We want to discuss changing this in the Parliament,” USDP lawmaker Tin Maung Win told The Irrawaddy.
Other military-era throwbacks that some legislators want to tackle include the ongoing detention of political prisoners—some of whom are recent detainees under Article 18. The New National Democracy Party’s Thein Nyunt, who has made a name for himself as a reformist crusader in Parliament, said he will press to have all remaining political prisoners freed.
“I have many items to raise in the next session, but I will push to have all remaining political prisoners released,” the Rangoon-based MP told The Irrawaddy.
The upcoming parliamentary session will be the ninth since President Thein Sein’s military-leavened government took office in early 2011, surprising people with a series of reforms that have resulted in the dropping of sanctions and the opening of Burma’s backward economy to Western and Japanese investment.
The Parliament comprises a Lower and Upper House, or Pyithu Hluttaw and Amyotha Hluttaw, to give them their respective Burmese-language names. The governing USDP dominates both chambers, holding 212 out of 440 seats in the Lower and 124 out of 224 in the Upper House.
Many USDP members are ex-Army, meaning that despite Burma’s reforms, Parliament remains a bastion of military control, even if much-diluted from the old junta era. As well as the USDP members, 25 percent of seats in both houses are reserved for soldiers, who rotate in and out of the houses, with the state daily The New Light of Myanmar carrying a Jan. 10 notice of the latest reshuffles, which for the first time saw two women nominated as Army MPs.
But gender-sensitive recruitment notwithstanding, diminishing the military’s presence in Parliament is needed to further Burma’s democratic transition, says Larry Diamond, who adds that Burma should move from a first-past-the-post, Westminster-style electoral system to a more proportional format—another reform item that could go before lawmakers in 2014.
The change, Diamond suggests, could be in the USDP’s interests and could prove a worthwhile bargaining chip with an NLD bent on changing the Constitution to allow leader Suu Kyi to become president after a likely election win for her party in 2015.
“The government would take less of a risk if it sought to introduce an element of proportionality to the electoral system, so if the USDP gets, let’s say, 20 percent of the vote in 2015, it won’t end up with just a handful of seats,” Diamond, a prolific author on democratization and political transitions, told The Irrawaddy.
Other matters expected to be discussed in the coming session, say MPs, include education reform, new laws for Burma’s Special Economic Zones and for small and medium enterprises, as well as issues such as land reform and land confiscation.
But as the Jan. 31 deadline for the Constitutional Review Committee to report looms, the charter issue could well submerge the litany of political and economic reform gambits coming up in Burma’s Parliament—something even the Arakanese and Rohingya MPs can agree on.
“I have already submitted regarding Article 59,” Aye Maung said, insisting that the clause needs to be amended if Burma is to have fair elections in 2015.
Shwe Maung said the Constitution would likely prove the central topic of the upcoming session.
“The constitutional reform debate will probably be the dominant issue, despite the many other items to discuss,” he said.
“The most important test of Parliament will be whether or not it can deliver on constitutional reform,” said Diamond, who is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.
The NLD, however, will not be entirely taken up with Constitutional reform, it seems, despite party leader Suu Kyi’s vociferous campaigning. NLD lawmaker Min Thu said a key issue for his party in the upcoming session would be Burma’s power sector, with electricity reaching less than three out of 10 Burmese and a recent proposal to increase prices nixed by the USDP, with the ruling party perhaps fearful of alienating voters ahead of the 2015 elections.
“We want to update the laws for the electricity sector,” the Naypyidaw parliamentarian said.