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The Military Regime Lives on in the New Parliaments

By Burma Partnership  •  February 7, 2011

On 31 January 2011, Burma’s parliament began its inaugural session, allegedly ending decades of military dictatorship. However, as the first week has shown, the military regime is still alive and well in the new Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) controlled government. This parliament is not a step in a slow transition to democracy. It is simply a new phase of the same old military rule.

The military engineered its dominant position in the new parliament through unilateral decrees, repressive laws, the military drafted 2008 Constitution, and November 2010 elections that were neither free nor fair. The military-supported USDP gained 76% of contested seats through widespread and systematic electoral fraud. A 25% bloc of unelected, military appointees adds to the regime-aligned voting MPs, totaling over 82% of the National Parliament and State and Regional Parliaments.

Military aligned representatives used their overwhelming majority to secure leadership positions. Former SPDC Prime Minister and current head of USDP Thein Sein has become President, an outcome that was in all likelihood decided well in advance of this week’s voting. Current USDP representatives and former SPDC generals Shwe Mann and Khin Aung Myint became the speakers of the two houses of the national parliament. USDP representatives also took all 28 leadership posts in the 14 state and regional parliaments.

The military’s majority and immediate stranglehold on house leadership guaranteed that the three person vice-presidential pool, from which Thein Sein became president, would be pre-determined military picks. Six of the members of the vice-presidential nominee vetting committee were USDP members, including both house speakers, with the seventh a military appointee.

The military appointee committee’s choice, former SPDC Secterary-1 and current USDP representative Thiha Thura Tin Aung Myint Oo, became Vice-President 1. Dr. Sai Mauk Kham, a Shan MP with the requisite USDP affiliation for a leadership role, became Vice-President 2. Despite Dr. Sai Mauk Kham ethnicity, residents in his Lashio riding took no pride in his election as Vice-President. “To be honest, many of us are still wondering how he won, since almost everyone voted for the SNDP candidate,” said a Lashio resident. Dr. Sai Mauk Kham defeated the independent Shan candidate in his riding with 20,000 advance votes. See the Forum from Democracy in Burma’s election report for more information (Burmese only).

The two non-USDP nominees for vice-president put forward by the outnumbered independent representatives, Saw Thein Aung of the Phalon Sawaw Party and Dr. Aye Maung of the Rakhine Nationality Development Party, had no realistic chance of election.

Essential elements of a strong democracy are absent in this military engineered and led government: proportional representation, a free press, participation, transparency, deliberation, empowered opposition voices.

Officials have barred independent media from covering the heavily guarded parliament in the isolated capital of Naypyidaw. Rather than facilitate and encourage citizens’ engagement and understanding, authorities have kept citizens shut out. Only state-run media have provided edited glimpses into the proceedings. For MPs themselves, recording devices, radios, mobile phones, and computers are bannedMembers of parliament must submit their questions to the proper authorities ten days in advance; authorities can reject the question without appeal. Speeches that might endanger national security, the unity of the country or violate the Constitution are restricted.

The leadership of the newly elected National Parliament wasted no time in using their new authority to discourage deliberation.National Assembly Speaker Khin Aung Myint was quoted in the state-run newspaper The Mirror as saying that it was important for there not to be debates within the Parliament as this would waste precious time (read his speech in Burmese here). Democracy clearly has no place in the military’s new parliaments.

The nomination and subsequent failure of the two independent candidates for the Vice-President positions illustrates precisely that non-military aligned MPs will be able to accomplish little in this parliament. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi recently said in an interview,“Sometimes I think that a parody of democracy could be more dangerous than a blatant dictatorship, because that gives people an opportunity to avoid doing anything about it.”

Still, democracy activists continue to push for real change. The international community must see the parliament for what it is: nothing more than a democratic façade for the same military regime that has been in power for decades.

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