Burma's 15-Minute Parliament
Before Burma's elections last year and the opening of the Hluttaw (Parliament) at the end of January, some Burmese politicians, journalists and scholars on the military-ruled nation expected the transition to a quasi-civilian government to create some much-needed political and economic space.
However, just three weeks after Parliament convened for the first time in more than two decades, it has become obvious to all that Burma's post-election politics is struggling not only for space but also for time.
Since Jan. 31, the Pyithu Hluttaw, or Lower House, has met just three times, for a total of 8 hours and 20 minutes, while the Amyotha Hluttaw, or Upper House, has held three meetings totaling just 6 hours and 35 minutes. The Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (the Union Parliament, a combination of both Houses) has held 11 meetings so far, adding up to just 9 hours and 5 minutes.
None of the Union Parliament meetings held since Feb. 11 has been more than 20 minutes long, with the meetings on Feb. 15 and Feb. 17 lasting a mere 10 minutes each—surprising observers and a few members of Parliament from non-military-backed parties.
Khin Maung Swe, a leader of the National Democratic Force (NDF), which won four Upper House seats and 12 Lower House seats, said the reason for the short meetings could be that the ruling junta and parliamentary officials want to delay the creation of a new government until late March.
"Although the Parliament has been meeting for the past three weeks, the president-in-waiting and his cabinet have still not been sworn in yet," he said, attributing the slow pace of progress to the brevity of meetings.
"Each meeting is just a few minutes long, allowing only enough time to make one or two appointments," he said. "We really should have done more by now."
This protracted approach to dealing with affairs of state comes at a cost. The government spends 3.7 million kyat (US $41,000) each day on meals for parliamentary members, said Khin Maung Swe.
Over the past three weeks, there has been precious little for the Burmese press to report about the proceedings in Parliament. It is perhaps just as well, then, that the only media allowed to cover Parliament is the state-run Myanmar News Agency.
There was, however, one brief episode that might have attracted some outside attention. On Feb. 10, Myat Nyana Soe, an NDF member of the Upper House, proposed reducing the number of ministries from 34 to 25.
This suggestion was soon quashed, however, when Minister of Information Kyaw Hsan stood up to scold Myat Nyana Soe, reminding him that China has 22 ministries and 20 ministerial-level boards and India has 35 ministries and 21 ministerial-level boards.
In Rangoon, the former capital, journalists are still trying to figure out what to make of the trickle of information coming out of Naypyidaw.
"In the past three weeks, the only significant thing the Hluttaw has done is elect the president and vice-presidents. The government is still not formed yet," said a political reporter for a Rangoon-based news journal, speaking to The Irrawaddy on condition of anonymity.
"For the past ten days, most Hluttaw meetings have lasted just 15 minutes. So now people have started calling it the 15-minute Hluttaw," he added.
While outside observers may find the situation in Naypyidaw odd, however, it seems to be perfectly in keeping with the regime's desire to keep Burma's democracy strictly "disciplined."
In his first speech as the Upper House speaker on Jan. 31, ex-Maj-Gen Khin Aung Myint urged MPs not to debate, but to "discuss any matters in unison."
"It is not important not to have a sense of contradiction," said the junta hardliner, who also serves as the minister of culture and speaker of the Union Parliament.
"The truth may disappear because of the eloquence of a person in a debate-like situation," he warned his fellow parliamentarians.
Reprinted with permission of the Irrawaddy Daily, with which Asia Sentinel has content-sharing agreement