Not a Rubber Stamp: Myanmar’s Legislature in a Time of Transition
Although Myanmar’s nascent legislature has proved more vibrant and influential than many expected, serious individual and institutional capacity constraints are impeding the effective, efficient lawmaking necessary for the country’s full democratic transition.
In its latest briefing, Not a Rubber Stamp: Myanmar’s Legislature in a Time of Transition, the International Crisis Group looks at Myanmar’s Union Assembly, formed in 2011 and the first independent such body the country has seen in half a century. Both its lower and upper houses have shown some strengths and are important drivers of the transition process. However, they sometimes struggle to develop technically sound and democratically oriented laws.
The briefing’s major findings are:
The new legislature is more vibrant and influential than many had expected and has a key role in the reform process. The laws it is making are introducing new freedoms, modernising the legal code and providing a basis for improved economic governance.
However, some bills have raised concerns that the authorities, both legislative and executive, may not be ready to give up controls on the media, on civil society and on the right to demonstrate. Moreover, lack of experience, scant knowledge of democratic practice, poor institutional support and unclear procedures act as brakes on effective lawmaking.
While the lawmaking process has flaws, there is a willingness to consult with stakeholders and make use of expert inputs. Authoritarian reflexes and concerns in some quarters about opening up too far, too fast are tempered, though not erased, by other considerations, such as public demands for consultation and a desire to meet international standards.
The Constitution reserves 25 per cent of seats for the military. While this is a serious departure from democratic norms, military representatives have largely supported the reform process. Both speakers have pushed their chambers to eschew party politics in favour of consensus-making. How political parties will develop in the run-up to the next elections, and beyond, will be key.
The shape of new media legislation and whether the announced amendments are made to the peaceful-assembly law will be the next concrete tests of whether it is the old reflexes or the new openness that holds sway.
“There is need for much greater institutional investment in the legislature and the capacity to give its members necessary support”, says Jonathan Prentice, Chief Policy Officer. “This is critical for the institution to remain vibrant, effective and respected”.
“As Myanmar moves toward elections in two years’ time, the consensus-based approach to lawmaking and the relative absence of party politics will change, as new political dynamics emerge”, says Anagha Neelakantan, Deputy Asia Program Director. “The legislature must ensure that it is equipped to face much higher expectations and far more complex demands”.