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Myanmar Military Remains an Obstacle to Progress, AIPMC Warns

By ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus  •  December 13, 2012

The military continues to exert undemocratic control over the Myanmar parliament and remains an obstacle to progress, AIPMC president Eva Kusuma Sundari warned a delegation of visiting Myanmar MPs this week.

Indonesian MPs, including Ms. Sundari, welcomed a delegation of parliamentarians from Myanmar on December 11, exchanging experiences, thoughts and ideas aimed at helping Myanmar’s nascent parliament develop its capacities to build a strong and just Burmese society.

“While we have much to learn from each other, we must acknowledge that the process taking place in Myanmar today is very different to that which we experienced here in Indonesia,” Ms Sundari told the meeting.

“The Indonesian reform process was bottom-up, while the changes taking place in Myanmar today are very much top-down. It was a strong civil society and media that pushed the reforms here, and the military has really clamped down on any free thought for several decades in Myanmar and they face a real challenge in getting democratisation on the right track.”

The AIPMC president and respected parliamentarian told the visiting delegates of the key efforts made to empower Indonesia’s parliament in the transition following the end of Suharto’s 32-year rule as president in 1998. They included making effective amendments to the constitution without sacrificing or altering key democratic principles, successfully removing the military from politics, and increasing protections for human rights within the constitution, which includes decentralization and formal establishment of relationships between civil society and the parliament.

“We have 80 independent commissions as a result of one-by-one developing and giving strength to the vital mechanisms of check and balances. For example, alongside the Supreme Court we have also established judicial commissions to monitor the court,” Ms. Sundari told the Myanmar delegation in her opening remarks.

“The Indonesian Parliament has new power and legitimacy, which makes it stronger than it ever was during the Suharto period; the parliament selects and appoints key executive positions, such as Supreme Court judges and members of parliamentary commissions. Strengthening the power of the parliament is necessary, and it cannot be done without amending the constitution.”

The meeting was full of frank discussion, with the visiting parliamentarians seeking experiential advice from their Indonesian peers on how they could enact similar reforms in their own country. Ms Sundari noted that it was very productive to get to speak to representatives from so many ethnic parties, and was encouraged by their tenacity and honesty.

“The Myanmar MPs were not afraid to ask questions on sensitive issues, such as how the Indonesian parliament started the reform of security sector, how we can remove the military from parliament and politics and how to strengthen the parliament, and even to the detailed issues of what strategies to adopt to ensure ministries respect the parliament,” Ms Sundari said. “They also asked about how to approach the issue of regional autonomy and parliament’s role in combatting corruption.”

For their part, the MPs from Myanmar expressed frustration at what they saw as impediments to them fulfilling their role as parliamentarians and representatives of their constituents. While hopeful for the future, many expressed scepticism of the current situation but were eager to take on the role of raising the parliament up as a key driver of reform.

The Burmese MPs, 11 members of the Union-level parliament (both upper and lower houses) and 15 members of the regional / state level parliaments are in Indonesia on a 7-day capacity building and exposure program, supported by the Nyein Foundation (Burma) and Ajar Foundation.

The delegation met with their Indonesian peers at the House of Representatives in Jakarta. Along with Ms. Sundari, who is also on the parliamentary commission on law and human rights, were MP Budiman Sudjatmiko, who sits on the commission on government, and MP Nova Riyanti Yusuf, commission on health and labour.

Representatives from the Unity and Democracy Party of Kachin State (UDPKS) explained the barriers that remained for them in effecting their roles as parliamentarians – and their continued concern to seek an end to the bitter conflict with the Burmese army in northern Kachin State.

“The military reserves 25 per cent of the seats in the Parliament, so we are handcuffed, we cannot enact any changes – the power is centralised just with the military-backed government, not the parliament,” one Kachin MP explained, going on to ask what roles the parliament and civil society had to play in resolving internal conflicts in Indonesia. “Who is supposed to be more powerful, the government or the parliament?”

Ms. Sundari told the delegates that a combination of a strong parliament, backed by a strong civilian movement helps to check the power of the government and at the same time ensure accountability and transparency of the parliament. Civil society, the media and the parliament can work together to end internal conflicts, as they did in Aceh, and push democracy forward, she added. The parliament has the role of drafting and enacting key bills that will drive this process and enact into law the protections and policies that are in the interests of the people.

The Kachin representative responded by asking if they would need a tsunami in Kachin State to lay the way for an end to the conflict, referring to the 2004 tsunami that devastated the Aceh region and provided a window of opportunity to both sides to secure a lasting peace.

Budiman Sudjatmiko also explained that decentralization of power was a key measure that helped to reduce the distance between the people and the legislature and executive – so that state authorities are working for the people they represent. However, this does not come without its own problems, and corruption remains a problem not just in Indonesia, but throughout ASEAN, he said.

“In the first period of the transition, we have to deal with the problems of civil and political rights, but we cannot only focus on this process for too long. The quality of life of the people can only be guaranteed through ongoing democratization across all sectors, including healthcare, land reform, education… across the board,” Mr. Budiman added.

AIPMC has been working with a range of partners inside and outside of Myanmar to help support, develop, facilitate and deliver programs aimed at building the capacity of Myanmar’s governmental and parliamentary institutions.

Today’s meeting was a follow-up to earlier efforts that saw AIPMC members from Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand meet with Myanmar MPs in Naypyitaw in July of this year.

Observers have noted that despite enthusiasm and an atmosphere of sustained critical engagement within the Myanmar Parliament, inexperience and insufficient knowledge have combined to limit parliamentarian impact to date. Relative isolation during decades of dictatorship and subsequent international sanctions has meant relatively little opportunity for Myanmar to benefit from the democratic development of its ASEAN neighbours.

Nova Riyanti Yusuf, who has worked on developing a number of bills on health and labour issues, warned that being a parliamentarian was not only about turning up to sessions and debating, or voting on bills, it was also about action.

“As parliamentarians we have to keep stand strong beside the challenge. Speaking alone is not enough; to put power behind our words we have to compile data, to do research and from there we can move on to initiate a pilot project… to make our voice audible and understood we have to do many things,” she said.

This exposure trip to Jakarta was preceded by regular capacity building training delivered by parties inside Myanmar itself and is aimed at ensuring effective representation of constituency and national interests in the parliamentary system. It is hoped that by the end of the programme, participants will:

The Myanmar delegation included representatives from: All Mon Regions Democracy Party (AMDP); Chin Progressive Party (CPP); Chin National Party (CNP); Inn Nationality Development Party (INDP); Kayan National Party (KNP); Lahu National Development Party (LNDP); Pa-O National Organization (PNO); Phalon Sawaw Democratic Party (PSDP); Rakhine Nationality Development Party; Shan National Democratic Party (SNDP); Ta-ang (Palaung) National Party (TNP); Unity and Democracy Party of Kachin State (UDPKS); and the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).

The participating MPs were selected by their parties in view of their current role within the party, and ability to cascade knowledge and skills acquired on the exposure trip. Many have also recently attended a capacity building training programme with the Nyein Foundation.

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This post is in: Press Release

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