Speaker of Myanmar's Lower House of Parliament Shwe Mann took over Wednesday as overall leader of the legislature amid expectations that he will collaborate more closely with lawmakers from both houses on legislation.
Shwe Mann, who is eyeing to become president in 2015, took over the position of Union Parliament speaker from the Upper House Speaker Khin Aung Myint.
The Union Parliament speaker shepherds the two chambers of Myanmar’s legislature, and the post holds great political power. It is rotated between the speakers of the two chambers every two and a half years.
Shwe Mann’s appointment will see him stay in the new role until the end of reformist President Thein Sein’s first term, and will possibly be the last as the top leader said recently that he is not preparing to run in elections in 2015.
Shwe Mann, who is also chairman of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), is expected to face opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in the tussle for the president’s post in 2015.
Khin Aung Mying handed over the post to Shwe Mann in a symbolic ceremony on Wednesday attended by Thein Sein, Vice Presidents Sai Mauk Kham and Nyan Tun, military chief Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing, and ministers.
In accepting the post, Shwe Mann said that it was the bicameral parliament’s job to make up for the nearly five decades of military misrule by the former junta, which relinquished power in 2011 following a historic election that has seen Myanmar implement rapid democratic reforms.
“The reason that we couldn’t run the country democratically is because we didn’t have a parliament, and when we had parliament, it was in name only,” he said.
“The current members of parliament must listen to the people’s voice and try to know the people’s feelings, attitude, and what they need. Then, it is the MPs’ job to implement it.”
During Khin Aung Myint’s term as Speaker of the Upper House or Amyotha Hluttaw, Myanmar’s parliament passed 58 laws, including the right to peaceful assembly, legislation on labor organizations, and a new law to draw foreign investment into the country.
But Ye Tun, an MP with the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party at the Lower House, or Pyithu Hluttaw, said that he and many of his colleagues are frustrated by the way Khin Aung Myint has done his job, which he said led to several disagreements between the two houses of parliament over legislation.
“We often had disagreements with U Khin Aung Myint in approving draft laws and we thought of him as a hard-liner,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
But he acknowledged that MPs in Myanmar’s fledgling democracy have had little experience debating legislation.
“When we think of this in light of the current situation, it is because we didn’t clearly understand the procedures of making a law.”
Phone Myint Aung, an MP from the National Democratic Force with the Upper House, agreed that the parliament has been ineffective in many ways during its first two-and-a-half-year term.
“During U Khin Aung Myint’s term, it was hard to collaborate between the legislative and administrative sectors,” he said, adding that the relationship was one more of checks and balances than of teamwork.
Kyaw Lin Oo, a political observer, said Khin Aung Myint was seen to have “strictly managed” the parliament during his term in office and that he expects Shwe Mann to reverse that trend, nurturing a good working relationship between the two houses.
“Thura Shwe Mann is friendly to MPs and other political party leaders such as [opposition chief] Daw Aung San Suu Kyi,” he said, using honorifics for the two leaders.
“In my opinion, we will see a warm relationship develop between the speakers of parliament and the MPs during U Shwe Mann’s term.”
He said that the parliament’s success hinged on the Upper House engaging in frank debate with its counterpart, and with the former Speaker of the House of Representatives taking charge, “the Pyithu Hluttaw’s role in legislating will be more important than before.”
Amending the constitution
Banyar Aung Moe, an Upper House MP with the All Mon Regions Democracy Party, said he believes Shwe Mann would lead Myanmar further along its path to becoming a democratic nation.
“He is taking on very important responsibilities, such as leading the parliament towards ensuring civil peace and working towards amending the 2008 [junta-backed] constitution in a way that all political parties and all ethnic groups can accept. I think he will lead the way in implementing these laws,” he said.
Ethnic groups have long called for greater representation in parliament, which is stacked with a mandatory 25 percent military bloc, according to a provision in the 2008 constitution.
The charter also prohibits Aung San Suu Kyi from running for president, according to a clause that bans all Myanmar citizens with foreign family members from holding high office. Aung San Suu Kyi’s two sons from her late husband Michael Aris hold British citizenship.
The current seventh regular session of the Union Parliament began in the capital Naypyidaw on July 1, along with the separate sessions of the Upper and Lower Houses.
Reported by Zin Mar Win and Khin Khin Ei for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.