NEW PARLIAMENT MEETS NEXT WEEK

by Alan Nichols

 

The first major step in the transformation of Myanmar’s military dictatorship into a democracy will occur in a week – on February 1. On that day the newly elected Parliament will meet for the firs time after the amazing victory of the National League for Democracy in the November 8 election.

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Above: Daily life in Yangon which now faces more tourists

The current parliament, with the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party in power, will hold its final meeting on January 29.

NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi has just nominated two NLD members – one of them Karen -for Speakers in the Lower House and Upper House and two for Deputy Speakers – one Arakanese, the other Kachin. This fulfils a promise by Aung San Suu Kyi to include ethnic groups in the democratic leadership process (Radio Free Asia, Jan. 21).

 

ELECTING A PRESIDENT

The upper and lower houses of Parliament and the military, which holds a quarter of the seats in the legislature by appointment, will each put forward a candidate for President. Members of Parliament will cast votes for the candidates, and the winner will become president, while the other two become Vice Presidents.

The NLD has not yet revealed the names of those it intends to put forward for the position of president. Aung San Suu Kyi is prevented by Article 59(f) of the 2008 Constitution from being eligible because her sons have British passports.

There has been speculation that the offending article in the Constitution may be suspended to allow Suu Kyi to assume the role. However, the likelihood of the military agreeing to such a proposition ahead of the impending transition of power remains remote.

Once the NLD had this week announced the appointments of Speakers in both Houses of Parliament, this eliminated another area of speculation – that Suu Kyi might become Speaker of the Lower House.

In a remarkable commentary today by The Irrawaddy’s Kyaw Zwa Moe, writes: “Other analysts contend that Suu Kyi may remain party leader, without taking any official position in parliament or the executive. She would still be the ‘Lady in Charge’ regardless of her formal political role. The NLD leader has made one point abundantly clear: she will rule from ‘above the president’ in the forthcoming parliament.”

Kyaw Zwa Moe then concludes that Suu Kyi “may opt to assume the role of foreign minister. In that role, whenever the National Defense and Security Council is held, Suu Kyi would have a constitutional right to be there, alongside the Burma Amy chief and other powerful military figures.” Of course, her ‘president’ would be there too. This Council of 11 members is empowered by the Constitution to devise policy on military and security matters including the right to petition the president to declare a state of emergency.

This idea is consistent with an interview Suu Kyi gave to the Washington Post in November. The newspaper asked “When there is a meeting of the Association of South East Nations – or another gathering of heads of state – they are going to want you there. They are not going to want someone else.” Suu Kyi’s answer was clear: “I’ll go there. I’ll go along with the president, and he can sit beside me.” (The Irrawaddy, Jan. 22)

 

WEDGE IN CONFERENCE OF 700 ETHNIC LEADERS

After four days of conference called by the current government and the Army, disagreement is being voiced about the Army’s continuing control of defence and security, with its requirement for all ethnic groups to disarm.

Talks last Thursday, January 21, focussing on issues of federalism, gave opportunity for scepticism to be voiced on the peace process, which does not provide the level of state autonomy which ethnic minorities have been requesting.

Some ethnic leaders have said the central government is afraid that states may attempt to secede if given too much autonomy, although ethnic leaders have been saying they are committed to staying in the Union (of Burma) if a political solution can be found.

Another example of the difficulties of federalism is opposition by politicians in Arakan State in the west of Myanmar about the power of the new president to appoint chief ministers in each State. The Arakan National Party actually won a majority of state and Union-led seats – except for the military’s 25% of seats – now demands the right to form its own state-level administration.

 

POLITICAL PRISONERS RELEASED

Myanmar began releasing the first of about 100 prisoners yesterday (21 Jan.) just four days after the US Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged them to do so. More than 1,300 political prisoners have been released in recent years, some of them student leaders from the 1988 student uprising, and some from a student uprising in Letpadaung in last March. Student leaders who have lived for 20 to 25 years in exile overseas have also been welcomed home.

Zaw Htay, a director at the president’s office, said on his Facebook page that 102 prisoners would be freed. It was unclear whether they were all political prisoners. Zaw Htay also said that 77 death sentences would be reduced to life imprisonments. Phillip Blackwood, a New Zealand citizen jailed in Yangon’s Insein prison in March for two and a half years for insulting religion, was also due to be freed, according to his family.

Myanmar’s jailing of more than 2,000 journalists, activists, politicians and comedians during decades of military rule was a major factor behind Western sanctions.

 

TOURISM BOOMS AS DEMOCRACY MOVES FORWARD

International airlines, hotels and tourist operators have all flourished in their traffic to Myanmar as democracy has begun to emerge.

Qantas magazine of January 2016 describes the reopening of Myanmar to tourists, including a ‘rebellious punk streak’ which has previously not been tolerated among locals, let alone foreigners. Author Shehan Karunatilaka writes: “Yangon retreated from popular imagination with the decline of British Rangoon in the 1940s. You might expect to find an impoverished capital in a land stuck in the time of marauding kings, thieving colonials and savage rulers. Instead, you’re confronted with an amiable city built by conquerors and bureaucrats.” He describes a film documentary showing the punk movement to be a handful of young bands playing to handfuls of young people.

He describes the new openness to politics which a tourist can meet: “On my walks downtown I exchange chatter with a socialist mending shoes, a liberal peddling pharmaceuticals and a racist serving tea. I am lectured over mohinga about the Rohingya – one is a delicious fish broth filled with fresh herbs, the other a thorny human rights situation that remains unresolved.”

So Myanmar is now to the tourist world safe, fascinating, waiting to be rediscovered and complicated. This is now confirmed by the official statistics released by the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism that Burma welcomed 4.68 million tourists in 2015 an increase of 52% over the previous year. In 2011 there were only 800,000 tourists.

For arrivals by air, Thai travellers accounted for 200,000 arrivals, followed by Chinese and Japanese nationals, according to Myo Win Nyunt, a director in the regulation department of the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism. Thadoe Thuzar Aung, general secretary of the Union of Myanmar Travel Association, said “The tourism industry is a business that can feed all the people in the country. But it’s changing every day and we need to act on it. We need active stakeholders who can actually advise government and make checks and balances work effectively.” (The Irrawaddy Jan 21). The sector generated US$1,78 billion in revenue in 2014. Figures for 2015 are not yet released. Under new immigration regulations 12 types of single entry visa and thee types of multiple entry visa have been available since January 11.

Upcoming blogs will focus on the future role of civil society groups in Myanmar, and the role of religion.

Feel free to comment on this blog, but also suggest other areas or topics on Myanmar which could be covered. This weekly blog is a digest of news and events to keep people already interested in Myanmar informed.

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