In just a few days, Aung San Suu Kyi and 46 other representatives of her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), will find out whether they have won seats in Burma’s parliament in a series of byelections triggered by ministerial appointments. This is the first time the Lady, as she is often called, has been able to contest an election; during the 1990 and 2010 polls she was under house arrest.
Not surprisingly, her campaign trips across the country during the short campaign period — including to the rural delta township of Kawhmu, not far from Rangoon, where she is standing as a candidate — have attracted a great deal of attention, energising communities in a way the military-aligned Union Solidarity and Development Party, or USDP, can only dream of.
Wherever she goes — even in the capital, Naypyidaw — she has been greeted by thousands of ecstatic supporters; in Myaungmya, a small rice-trading town in the Irrawaddy delta where her mother was born and raised, tens of thousands turned out to see her. Assuming the vote is relatively free and fair, Aung San Suu Kyi and many of her colleagues will soon be taking their seats in Burma’s bicameral national parliament, known as the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw.
The NLD’s decision in November 2011 to return to the formal political process has been dissected and analysed extensively; while most commentators — and members of the public — are supportive, some have warned of the danger of legitimising a political system that formalises the military’s role in politics by giving it 25% of seats in parliament. In reality, the NLD had little choice but to play the military’s game: given the pace of political change over the past year, there was a real danger it would be left by the wayside.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s decision to contest a seat herself has proved more controversial. There are legitimate concerns that she could be marginalised in the parliament, struggling to make the transition from icon to an ordinary politician — just one of 440 in the parliament’s lower house, the Pyithu Hluttaw.
Just as views of the Burmese government has shifted dramatically over the past 12 months, perceptions of the parliament in Naypyidaw have undergone their own transformation. Shortly after convening for the first time on January 31 last year, it was dubbed the “15-minute parliament” by opposition activists because of the brevity of the initial sessions, which saw Thein Sein elected president. One year on, when the third session began on January 21, the Reuters news agency published a feature article with the headline, “In Myanmar, a Sham Parliament Stirs to Life”, describing how MPs were drafting anti-corruption legislation and preparing to discuss the national budget.
Yet the parliament is rarely mentioned when the international community, Aung San Suu Kyi or activists laud Burma’s reforms. Lacking the drama of NLD campaign rallies or mass releases of high-profile political prisoners, it is the hidden success story of the “Burmese spring”.
Get Crikey FREE to your inbox every weekday morning with the Crikey Worm.
“The parliament has been much more dynamic, and with greater space for open and frank debate, than most observers thought it would be,” says Richard Horsey, an independent researcher who regularly visits Burma. “Both the parliament, and the president and his administration, have played key roles in driving the reforms.”
Early indications gave little grounds for optimism, however. The military regime — known as the State Peace and Development Council — convened the first session, which ended with the handover of power to President Thein Sein’s government on March 30 last year. Opposition lawmakers made up barely a fifth of the 498 elected positions and only 15% of all parliamentarians.
Journalists were barred from watching proceedings and representatives threatened with jail terms for passing on details of debates and legislation. Reports in state media were extensive but still showed the telltale signs of government censorship. But there were a few positive indications, as I noted in an article for Australian National University-run blog New Mandala shortly after the session ended.
Early perceptions were often tainted by the November 2010 general election and the assumption that the USDP and military would form a tight voting bloc. How, critics asked, could a highly flawed poll — one that the main opposition group boycotted and the USDP dominated — create a credible legislature that works in the interests of the country and its people? Yet this is largely what has happened.