When Burma’s current parliament first convened in 2011 following a flawed general election, most observers and opposition members expected it to be a rubber stamp for the army and the newly installed civilian government of ex-generals.
As with so much of Burma’s democratic transition, its performance has been a surprise. Lawmakers soon began to actively debate, amend and pass numerous laws, and when several dozen National League for Democracy (NLD) MPs, including Aung San Suu Kyi, joined parliament following by-elections in mid-2012, debate was further enlivened.
As parliament enters its last two months in office, we asked lawmakers and political activists to weigh the legacy of its 2011-2016 term. Most said great strides had been taken in reforming and replacing junta-era laws governing economics, business and labour rights, along with a range of other issues.
However, critics said that some important new legislation, around land rights and education reform, falls short, while repressive laws remain on the books. The passage of four nationalist “race and religion” laws, they added, remains a dark stain on the parliament’s record.
AN ACTIVE PARLIAMENT
According to Khun Ti Myat, a Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) member and chairman of Union Parliament’s Bill Committee, more than 200 laws have now been amended, passed or revoked. Another 40 laws and bills, he added, are still being scrutinised as MPs – many of whom lost their seats in the 8 November election — continue to legislate until 30 January. The opposition NLD won the vote by a landslide.
Lower house USDP member Tin Maung Oo said parliament had needed some time to find its feet but became more effective from 2013 onwards, in part due to the efforts of parliament Speaker Shwe Mann, who was USDP chairman until August when he lost his post in an internal leadership purge.
During the course of their term, Tin Maung Oo said lawmakers examined government budgets more closely, initiated reforms to junta-era laws and began to draft bills. He added, however, that individual MPs had limited success in proposing new laws, most of which still came from President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government.
“Government agencies took the upper hand with their bills, but the bills of MPs focused on the public interest,” he said.
Min Khin, member of NLD’s economic committee, said the next parliament needed to focus on existing laws being correctly implemented.
“It’s not so urgent that you have to enact a lot of new laws. The country can continue with the current laws. What’s really needed is for the existing laws to be enforced,” he said.
ECONOMIC AND LABOR LAW REFORMS
Important economic reforms initiated by the government and passed by parliament since 2011 include a new Foreign Direct Investment Law, a Special Economic Zone law and legislative changes that allowed for foreign investment in telecoms and oil and gas, and for the Central Bank to implement independent monetary policy.
Labour reform laws were passed that allowed unionisation for the first time since junta rule. The laws also stipulated labour dispute resolution mechanisms and set a minimum wage. Two of these bills originated in parliament.
The NLD’s Min Khin said the foreign investment law had the most impact as international investors waited for the law to be passed before they entered Burma. However, it is too early to say that the law has made a significant impact, he added.
“There is still weakness when it comes to scrutinising government expenses and revenues,” he said, referring to the budget law.
Thein Nyunt, a lower house MP for the New National Democracy Party, was critical of labour law reforms, however, saying they did not go far enough.
“Existing labour laws are found to favour employers. For example, the labour laws stipulate only a cash fine for any employer who breaches the rules and regulations,” he said. “So the employers do not take these laws so seriously. The cash fine should be substituted with a prison term.”
Independent labor activist Zaw Yan said the new NLD government should carry out further labour rights reforms, noting that labour unrest had continued in recent years despite the new laws.
MPs praised parliament’s tax reforms for raising government revenues, adding that an Anti-Corruption Law was a good step towards battling pervasive graft, though its implementation falls short.
“The Anti-Corruption Law is very good, but enforcement is required — practical law enforcement measure is still weak on the government side,” said Thein Nyunt.
LOW MARKS ON EDUCATION, LAND, PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY
USDP MPs also initiated and passed two laws governing land – the Farmland Law and the Vacant, Fallow, and Virgin Lands Management Law.
In recent years, as Burma’s economic growth accelerated, disputes between local communities and companies over natural resources, in particular land, have become more common, while old grievances over land forcibly seized by the junta have resurfaced.
Parliament set up a committee inviting complaints about past land grabs and received 14,499 complaints between 11 November 2013 and 15 May 2015. By that time, The Irrawaddy reported, the committee had handled 7,697 of them and 6,802 remain unresolved. A new National Land Use Policy is being drafted, and adopting it will be an important task for the new parliament.
Ba Myo Thein, an incoming upper house NLD MP, said the current parliament had failed to address the important issue, as existing land laws were flawed and did little to protect the rights of farmers if they come up against the interests of well-connected companies.
“In the Farmland Law it can be easily be seen that it was intended to benefit a certain class of people and a certain group. Actually, the law should be helpful for the farmers as the economy of our country is based on agriculture,” he said.
Lower house NLD MP Min Thu said parliament failed to make enough progress in amending junta-era repressive laws, and when it did, sometimes the efforts fell short. Reforms to the Peaceful Assembly Law in 2014, for example, had done little to improve people’s freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, he said.
Hundreds of people have been imprisoned or are facing trial under the Peaceful Assembly Law in recent years, after a growing number of communities and activists expressed their demands over issues such as land rights and education reform. Many ignored the law’s requirement to seek prior government permission for protests and subsequently faced police charges.
Parliamentary approval in September for the controversial National Education Law sparked nationwide protests by student activists. They felt the law did not sufficiently guarantee higher education institutions’ independence from the government.
Some 50 students remain behind bars after a police crackdown on a student protest in March. Myat Thu, a student activist who is being sought by authorities, told Myanmar Now in a Facebook message that some USDP parliamentarians had betrayed the students.
“The government and MPs of the ruling party breached their promises made during negotiations with protesting students,” he said. “They were detained and the old [National Education Law] was just polished up — they re-enacted the law that neglects the demands of students. They made fools of the students.”
RACE AND RELIGION LAWS LEGACY
Perhaps the most controversial actions by parliament concern the passage of the four race and religion laws, which were advocated by the radical nationalist Buddhist monk movement Ma-Ba-Tha.
Human rights groups said the laws discriminate against Burma’s Muslim minority and undermine women’s rights. The NLD fought in vain against the passage of the laws, which were swiftly passed by the USDP majority and the military officers who control a quarter of parliament.
Win Htain, Yangon Region representative from National Unity Party, said the USDP had used the laws to try to whip up nationalism ahead of the election in an effort to boost its popularity, but now the country is stuck with the divisive legislation.
Min Thu, of the NLD, said a new NLD-dominated parliament would have to carefully consider its options when it comes to the future of the race and religion laws.
“These laws should not have been debated in parliament, but we had to accept the decision of the [USDP] majority,” he said, adding that a new parliament “will have to listen to the voice of public” to decide whether the laws should be amended or kept.