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Consolidating parliamentary democracy in Burma

Joan Ryan MP, Chloe Smith MP and Angela Smith MP write about their experiences in supporting the Inter-Parliamentary Union and UNDP induction programme for the new parliamentarians that have been elected to the Hluttaw in Burma. This parliamentary strengthening programme was intended to be complementary to the ongoing assistance provided by the UK Parliament to strengthen and support the consolidation of parliamentary democracy in Burma.

Angela Smith MP

This programme was stimulating, I hope, for both the new members of the Hluttaw and the international MPs supporting them. It was designed around the need to develop skills relating to law-making, oversight and representation and inevitably drew in debate about democracy and the separation of powers.
Traditionally, of course, delegations of MPs who visit their counterparts abroad are involved in a lot of discussion and sharing of ideas. It is typically an experience that takes place around a table and at the very least is useful as a diplomatic exercise, as a relationship building experience. This was different.

From the beginning, one was aware of being part of something much bigger than that. This is a country torn by civil conflict, afflicted by human rights abuse and damaged by corruption and the practices of a military regime which routinely abused the power of the state. It is one of the least developed countries in the world and the disparity between rich and poor is such that even the middle class struggles financially. In this context, I soon realized the extent of the support needed by these newly elected Parliamentarians, charged as they have been with building a democracy, and I returned home from the programme utterly committed to the ongoing need for international support for the work that they have to do.

The programme was well-organized and worked well to not only introduce newly elected politicians to the democratic process but to also identify further training needs. The leader of the biggest political party, Aung San Suu Kyi, is acutely aware of the scale of the challenge that lies ahead and of the extent of the sacrifices needed to secure a better future for Burma. I believe too that the new members of the Hluttaw understand what is going to be required of them. Equally, however, I believe that they want to continue to enjoy international support from other Parliaments around the world. They know that democracy won’t be built quickly or easily and appreciate the help we can give them.

Thank you to the IPU for enabling me to be part of this exciting process and equally for making it possible for me to experience the wonderful warmth and hospitality of the Burmese people. These people deserve a more secure, prosperous future and it is incumbent on all of those of us engaged in the democratic process to help make that happen.

Joan Ryan MP

The programme was well organised and due to the survey undertaken with the members of the first Hluttaw it was very appropriately focussed on the needs and concerns of the MPs, the key issues within parliamentary democracy and the main tasks facing newly elected MPs. It was very helpful that on Sunday 14th February a whole day briefing was provided for the participating international MPs and the UNDP, IPU, and HoC personnel. Given we were dealing with over 250 Myanmar MPs it was essential we had a clear grasp of what we were doing, the details of the programme and the outcomes expected.

The headline presentations were given in the first session of each day with all participants present. This was followed by panel discussions and audience participation, via Q&A sessions. The second part of the day involved MPs being divided into groups led by the international MPs with the UNDP, IPU and HoC staff, for a series of interactive workshops. Headline speeches worked best when accompanied by a clear PowerPoint presentation, using simple examples and pictures where appropriate. It was more than helpful that my PowerPoint presentation was translated into Burmese/Myanmar. Therefore, knowing the topic well in advance and getting early guidance, as I did from Meg Munn, is invaluable if translation is to be effected.

We were dealing with complex concepts and procedures, with everything subject to simultaneous translation, so keeping it simple helped to enhance understanding and engagement in the subsequent panel discussion and workshop. MPs approached the workshops with a serious attitude. They liked to participate, to interact with international MPs, to contribute their views and make their own presentations.

A high level of attendance was maintained throughout the week and at all sessions. MPs were focussed, always keen to engage and they asked plenty of questions. The MPs were excellent at working with each other and this level of cooperation made the workshop sessions a success.

Daw Su and the Hluttaw MPs made it clear they valued the programme and welcomed the international support being made available. They hoped this support would continue as they have a long way to go to establish good parliamentary processes. We had a brief feedback meeting with Daw Su and this was useful and welcomed by the international MPs. Daw Su thanked us and clearly thought the programme a great help.

The whole visit was a very positive experience, certainly for me and, I hope, for the Hluttaw members I worked with. The programme has laid an encouraging foundation and further work to develop the themes and issues covered over the course of the week would be a good way forward for the Hluttaw members. There are clearly still real risks to the fledgling democracy given that the military occupy 25% of the seats in both Houses of the Hluttaw, the issue of the presidency is still to be settled, resources for MPs are minimal and expectations amongst the population are high.

Developing the engagement between MPs and their constituents will be very important in building a genuinely representative democracy. MPs must be accountable to constituents, should listen to their views and understand that they are the voice of the constituent and their local community. This will be important as the MPs are key to managing expectations and progressing towards democratic elections in 2020. Maintaining public confidence in the democratic process is obviously most important. The work MPs do locally and the engagement they have with their constituents will have a key role to play.

MPs had a better understanding of the separation of powers, scrutiny and accountability in Parliament. However, I think there is further work to be done to enable them to use their role as legislators in the best possible way and to the full extent. We were not present for the final day with the women only MPs but we did have a short session the day before on the main challenges facing MPs in Burma/Myanmar, particularly women. I think further focus on this would be helpful and especially valued by the women MPs.

Chloe Smith MP

I was hugely proud to join the delegation to help train the new Myanmar MPs in the 2nd Hluttaw.  We are very lucky in the UK to be able to serve in an established democracy where accountability, representation and scrutiny come as second nature, supported by robust processes and a thriving public atmosphere.  Personally I enjoyed sharing my knowledge with MPs who are ready to build such things from scratch;  I was also inspired by them in turn as many of them hold years of tough experience.  

I understood them to be optimistic about their future and ready to work hard.  I found people warm, welcoming and funny as we got to know each other.  It was challenging to work through translation but I was also impressed by our support team of enthusiastic interpreters who want the best for their country and draw inspiration from knowing that they have support overseas.

 I hope to keep in touch with some contacts from the week, and to be able to provide some further information on topics of particular interest such as youth affairs and employment.

UNDP Fast Facts on Parliamentary Induction in Myanmar

UNDP’s Parliamentary Induction Video

Guardian Article