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Myanmar's MPs lack resources
Publication Date : 20-12-2013
One of the most underrated aspects of Myanmar's transition has been its Parliament, dismissed early on by critics as a rubber stamp because 25 per cent of its seats are reserved for military personnel.
Significantly, it has turned out to be anything but; debates have been robust and issues are thrashed out vigorously.
This performance has surprised almost everyone. Yet it is just three years old and still the world's newest Parliament, with all its lawmakers first-term members who have never sat in a parliament before. This is a problem because they are inexperienced, under-resourced and overworked, which in turn affects the quality of decision-making and legislation.
A new report by non-governmental organisation International Crisis Group (ICG) released on Sunday says: "Lawmaking is constrained by representatives' lack of experience and institutional weaknesses in what is the first independent legislature in Myanmar for 50 years."
It notes: "Lawmakers have little knowledge of democratic practice, and there is very little institutional support. Without offices or staff, with no policy and research help, and with committees lacking internal experts to report on and analyse the issues, efficient, effective lawmaking is impossible."
It concludes: "Far greater investments are needed if this critical branch of government is to meet public expectation."
Myanmar's Parliament consists of a 440-seat Lower House and a 224-seat Upper House. The ruling military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) has the majority of seats, and the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, has 7 per cent of seats.
In both, 25 per cent of seats are reserved for military officers appointed by the commander-in-chief, General Min Aung Hlaing. These military officers are rotated regularly. But they are not rubber stamps nor do they go unchallenged themselves. The military bloc has not always voted in favour of the military-sponsored ruling party.
Dr Khin Zaw Win, a former political prisoner who now runs a training institute, told The Straits Times: "We are glad it turned out this way - that MPs are vocal and effective. But they are very bogged down in committee work."
There are more than 40 committees and commissions operating under Parliament.
The problem is twofold: No institutional knowledge and experience, both on the part of MPs and staff, and a shortage of professional advisers for MPs, who in many cases have not had the sort of education that prepares them for crucial public service roles in a democratic environment. After all, Myanmar has newly emerged from nearly five decades of socialist rule and military dictatorship.
The problem has been recognised, but continues to be underrated. There are attempts at training and resourcing by bodies such as the United Nations and the Inter-Parliamentary Union, an international organisation of parliaments. But they tend to be piecemeal.
That has left many MPs floundering.
"It's a very serious issue. Ordinary MPs - and they are all first-termers - are simply unable to cope," says Dr Khin Zaw Win, who notes that MPs "sit like sardines" in small offices with only minimal staff support.
The only office in Parliament that is well resourced is that of Speaker Thura Shwe Mann, analysts say. Shwe Mann has what is, in effect, his own think-tank, the Commission for Legal Affairs and Special Issues, comprising MPs and outside experts.
And that points to another factor: The powerful Speaker, who has been openly challenging the authority of the president and has said he would like to be president after 2015, dominates Parliament and has turned it into his own platform.
He has little interest in building up the capabilities of individual MPs, says a Yangon-based analyst who does not want to be named. Instead, he wants to use the body to raise his own personal profile and push his own agenda, says the analyst. "From that point of view, you want them to have enough capacity to do the job you want them to do, but not more than that," the analyst adds.
On the other side of the divide, NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi is also not known as an institution builder. A key criticism against her is that her NLD is a personality-based party that is arranged around her.
Nobody challenges Suu Kyi, which means decision-making is highly centralised.
With two personalities in the legislature dominating Myanmar's three-cornered political landscape - in which the third personality is the president - there is little interest in developing the capacity of MPs to function as they should.
The ICG report warns: "Lack of available research and analysis not only leaves lawmakers in a weak position to make decisions but also increases the impact of outside influences.
"Members may be swayed more than otherwise by media reporting, lobbying from commercial interests or colleagues with their own agendas. Commercial interests include responsible trade and industry organisations, but also crony businessmen with more narrow agendas."
It is crucial for international donors and foreign governments and experts to step up assistance, and equally crucial for Myanmar's government to allocate more resources to the country's vigorous but fledgling Members of Parliament.
This will help counter the influence of vested interests and personalities, and raise the quality of input and debates on legislation that will move Myanmar into the future.