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Myanmar's legislative agenda slowed by parliamentary schedule

Legislature held hostage by an unclear timetable

| Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos
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Members of parliament eat lunch during a farewell ceremony for them after attending the last day of the Union Parliament session in Naypyitaw on Jan. 29.   © Reuters

A key element of Myanmar's emergence from decades of military rule has been the need for new or revised legislation. Yet, sessions of Myanmar's national Union parliament have been interrupted at least four times since April 1 last year by holidays and by-election campaigning that have delayed debates over crucial legislation.

Bills that have been affected include the companies law, that would set important rules for both foreign and domestic investors in the country. Another delayed bill would regulate the presence and activities of foreigners in Myanmar. There is also one on women's rights, along with pressing debates on repressive legal clauses in current laws that have been increasingly enforced under the current government.

Many elected representatives, including those from the ruling National League for Democracy and other party leaders, have complained about the lack of a clear annual parliamentary calendar. The main issue boils down to a few practical questions: how many plenary sessions should there be during the five-year term of the legislature, how many days should each session last and when should each start?

The legislative leadership affiliated with the NLD is still grappling with defining a clear parliamentary schedule more than a year after the party, led by State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, took power. With no clear rules for conducting business, lawmakers do not know in advance the proposed dates of sittings and the number of days for legislative recess. Neither are they informed about the nature and content of the legislation to be discussed at the next session.

In the absence of a predictable timetable, members of parliament cannot adequately prepare for legislative debates, plan constituency trips or consult with outside groups on draft legislation.

Practical considerations

The majority of Myanmar's 664-seat bicameral parliament are freshman lawmakers, elected in November 2015. They tend to favor longer recesses so that they can spend more time in their constituencies and prefer shorter plenary sessions and assembly debates, which some have complained are usually lackluster. In addition, note some, sessions are arranged according to the whims of the two speakers or the ruling party whips.

Lawmakers from remote rural districts scattered around the country have been dismayed at orders requiring them to stay longer in Naypyitaw, the country's administrative capital, which is known for a lack of services such as public transport and a subdued social life.

Although the NLD parliamentary leadership is aware of the need to establish a more systematic schedule, the issue remains unsettled after years of discussions. This leaves considerable authority in the hands of party leaders, as the speakers decide when to convene and prorogue parliament.

After some internal debate, the NLD appears to be leaning toward three or four sessions annually: a budget session from January to mid-April, one or two summer sessions from late May to September, and a shorter winter session to debate the supplementary Union budget in November and December.

This is a much fuller schedule than in years past. In the 1950s during Myanmar's first postcolonial decade, there were two plenary sessions a year of only two to three weeks each to approve legislation and the budget. Newspapers of the time would ridicule the brevity of parliamentary work.

Historical precedents

During General Ne Win's socialist government of the late 1970s and 1980s, Myanmar's unicameral parliament convened even less often. A model of a rubber stamp assembly, its activities were extremely limited despite its pomp and pageantry. There were two regular sessions per year in March and October, but none lasted more than five days

The first post-junta parliament that convened in January 2011 after a break of 23 years was obviously ill-prepared. After two quiescent sessions that same year, however, the legislative branch promptly grew bolder. Under the direction of parliamentary Speaker Shwe Mann, the former military chief of staff, a legislature then dominated by the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party began raising questions on matters once deemed taboo, while modifying legislation to an unprecedented extent.

Ruling party lawmakers even started to challenge draft bills introduced by the USDP government. They tabled motions on such sensitive issues as land-grabbing and alleged human rights violations, even those involving the military -- which holds 25% of all parliamentary seats under constitutional provisions.

Lawmakers discovered the depth of the work that could be done. But they were soon swamped with longer sitting days and plenary sessions.

The parliament that sat between January 2011 and January 2016 held two or three sessions each year of considerable length. Proceedings were broadcast daily on TV to enforce the impression of an activist government and to rebut accusations that parliament was only serving as a rubber-stamp body. The lower house session held between January and August 2015 set a parliamentary record of 89 days.

But the performance of lawmakers should not be judged by the number of days that parliament sits. The main duties of parliament, which include passing laws, representing constituents and conducting oversight of other government branches, do not necessarily require the physical presence of a lawmaker sitting in the chamber. Elected representatives must also interact with their constituents back home and conduct oversight investigation outside the walls of parliament.

The long and short of it

The big question facing officials considering reformi of the legislature's procedures is how to manage the rhythm of a parliamentary year. It partly depends on how the length of parliamentary sessions relates to efficiency, which can only be determined by decades of experience. Historical legacies, traditional bureaucratic arrangements and local political conditions also influence the parliamentary calendar arrangement.

Like India, Myanmar is a former British colony and its financial year starts on April 1, which helps set the parliamentary calendar. Hot summers and rainy monsoon seasons also determine when parliament sits in India.

Longer sessions do not necessarily result in better legislative results. Instead, they often reflect efforts to stall government initiatives and delay legislative business. Longer parliamentary sessions also mean that lawmakers have less time to spend with constituents, a key consideration when elections are nearing.

They can also reflect lack of preparation by the government in dealing with parliament, leading to additional costs to the taxpayer - although the actual remuneration for lawmakers is relatively low. In Myanmar, lawmakers receive a supplementary allowance of 20,000 kyats ($15) per sitting day to cover living expenses in addition to their monthly salary, and live in basic dormitory accommodation.

But shorter sessions also have their problems. They may be criticized for hasty or insufficient debate and poor outcomes, such as the quick approval of badly drafted legislation. Devoting a few weeks a year to consider complex legislative proposals and conduct oversight activities, lawmakers can be easily overwhelmed, and thus more dependent on party machines and whips to decide and vote on legislation.

A parliament which convenes infrequently often tends to become a marginal body unable to effectively serve as a balance to a dominating executive branch, which would prefer weak oversight on its activities.

The current legislature has attempted to streamline the parliamentary process. It has established a routine for the preparation and control of the budget process. This includes vetting budget proposals in February and March and holding discussions on the supplementary budget around November and December.

Yet, the NLD leaders want to show that they control parliament and its schedule, and that the executive and legislative branches are able to work together to agree on a legislative agenda in advance. Despite growing dissatisfaction among NLD legislators, who are increasingly frustrated with being denied autonomy by their party hierarchy, the NLD-affiliated parliamentary speakers have established a constructive relationship with the government.

While there was friction between the USDP lawmakers and their own government in the previous parliament, the cooperation evident between the current legislative and executive branches bodes well for the country, as long as rising resentment among NLD lawmakers is kept in check.

The use of time is a vital element in parliamentary life. It is important that Myanmar's emerging parliament, including opposition parties and military-appointed representatives, knows what the Union government wants to achieve.

International donors and experts have highlighted the necessity for Myanmar to develop clear patterns in the legislative process to strengthen the still-fragile parliamentary system. This can start with the definition of a clear parliamentary calendar at the start of each fiscal year, and a weekly schedule at the start of each session. This would allow the presentation of a clear roadmap for what the NLD wants to accomplish -- and for when it wants to achieve results.

Renaud Egreteauis visiting fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore and author of a forthcoming Asia Foundation report on Myanmar's Union legislature.

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