Sunday, April 10, 2011

Myanmar in Transition - Is it a bacon of Light?

Myanmar in Transition - Is it a bacon of Light?
Syed Ali Mujtaba

There are some seminal changes taking place in Myanmar that needs attention amidst the news of India wining the world cricket world, tsunami cum quake in Japan, and civilized world is hell bent to make Libya, another Afghanistan nay Iraq,

Among such hyperboles the news that Myanmar's military strongman General Than Shwe who ruled for almost two decades has stepped down from his post has not raised the cockles of the opinion makers of the world.

According to reports, the Seventy-eight year old Senior General has disbanded the junta and its organ the State Peace and Development Council and handed over the power to the civilian government that was elected last year in the controversial election.

Even though some may feel that General Than Shwe will continue to play a significant role in the country's governance as army hierarchy has retained a firm grip on power, it’s a change in Myanmar that is obvious and the discourse of politics may be the same in that resource-rich country.

According to reports, Myanmar’s Parliament met from March 9 to March 23 and discussed a whole range of issues telling the state of affair in that country and giving an impression that a modicum of democratic apparatus is being put in place after almost five decades of military rule.

The deliberations in the Parliament disclosed some very non consequential facts such as the proportion of Chin nationals employed at the 15 Electrical Engineers’ Offices in the Chin State. The answer by the Muftis was 177 out of 197 or 89.85 percent. Along with the answer came the revelation that the Chin State, with a population in excess of 500,000, has a total electricity generation capacity of 3 megawatts, enough for less than one in 10 people to use a 60-watt light bulb.

Similarly there was a question on the number of “local” teachers employed at Basic Education High Schools in Buthidaung Township. The answer was 50 out of 51, and the non-local being the wife of a “service personnel assigned to the region.” It reveals something that was supposedly to be hiding.

In all, 46 questions and 17 proposals were submitted in the lower house, while 33 questions and 16 proposals were submitted in the upper house. Many of these have focused on regional infrastructure, introduction of compulsory military service, prevalence of tax evasion, lack of availability of loans for small-to-medium enterprises, manipulation of commodity prices, excessive cost of mobile phones, low internet connectivity, sale of fuel onto the black market, prevalence of gambling, conducting of a national census, cost of middle and high school education and the raising of pensions and government salaries.

The fact that such details are reported by the “New Light of Myanmar,” the only source for the goings on in Parliament reflects the level of accountability, shown by the military backed political party and such the military per se that now willing for a change as so far they had never considered to take into account the aspirations of the people while ruling the country with an iron hand.

The Parliamentary debate even though confined to fifteen minutes has brought some changes from the past. The information provided by the Junta sanctioned reports is useful in determining the actual situation in Myanmar. The fact that they can be useful to push for more substantial reforms is something path breaking.

Another redeeming feature of the Parliament functioning in Myanmar is that there is a sense of optimism and satisfaction in the opposition camp that a parliamentary democracy with its entire pitfall is at work in their country. They are confident that they have at least established a rapport with certain representatives in the USDP, the ruling party, a prospect that was unthinkable under the SPDC regime.

However, all is not hunky-dory as one may sound. Many questions and proposals by MPs have not even made it to the Parliament sessions. Questions and proposals have to be submitted to the speakers’ office 10 and 15 days in advance. MPs face jail for revealing the contents of Parliamentary discussions and no reporters are allowed into the parliament buildings.

The state media presented only a part of what’s going on in Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw. Much of the discussion has apparently been censored from media reports, and questions from MPs sometimes appear truncated.

The other lows are none of the issues that came up for discussion during the election campaign were raised in the Parliament session. As such, there remained little interest in general public about the parliamentary debate. The fact that opposition parties too have failed to keep the momentum going explaining to the public exactly who they are, and have faded into the background is the dark spot in the emerging silver linings in Myanmar’s tryst with democracy.

The irony is that the discussion in both mainstream and exile media about the Parliamentary sessions has been minimal. Most international media coverage of Myanmar had the hackneyed line about issues of economic sanctions and the role of the NLD. They more keen to paint the ‘RAMBO -4’ image of the deteriorating conditions inside that country than making efforts to realize the values of the parliamentary system and the long term benefits that may be in store.

Anyway, the big question is will Myanmar’s new bicameral Parliament going to bring any rapid changes in that country. The answer is simple – very unlikely because the aims of the USDP and the military rulers are quite divergent. The interesting fact however is, the situation in Myanmar is quite different in 2011 then what it was in 1990.

Just as the interests of the former generals in Parliament are different from the opposition MPs; the new guards are unlikely to be the same as those who have remained behind the military uniform for long.

Syed Ali Mujtaba is a journalist based in Chennai. He can be contacted at

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