As Burma’s parliament resumes business, opposition wonders whether President’s party role is unconstitutional, as lawmakers get set to discuss foreign investment and other laws.
RANGOON—As Burma’s latest parliamentary session gets going, the main opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) says it is looking into whether President Thein Sein’s election as head of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) breaches Burma’s Constitution.
In an interview at the NLD headquarters in Burma’s commercial capital Rangoon, Tin Oo—a senior member of the party regarded close to chairwoman Aung San Suu Kyi—exclusively told The Irrawaddy that “the Constitution is not clear on whether the president can hold such a party position, so we are looking into it.”
In the English translation of the widely condemned 2008 Constitution, Section 64 says that “if the President or Vice-President are members of a political party, they shall not take part in party activities during their term of office from the day of their election.”
Thein Sein was reappointed party head at the USDP conference, which ended on Wednesday.
The NLD previously said it wants to revise the 2008 Constitution, which as things stand, would bar party leader Suu Kyi from becoming president should the party win 2015 national elections as she as close relatives who are foreign citizens. The document also guarantees 25 percent of parliamentary seats for military appointees.
Nonetheless, should the NLD raise the matter in Parliament, it promises to further liven up what should regardless be a busy, even dramatic, program for the country’s legislature, which is dominated by the military-backed USDP.
During the last session, parliamentary pressure resulted in the mass resignation of the country’s Constitutional Court—a move deemed by some as evidence of a strong legislature but seen by others as compromising the country’s judiciary.
“I would say it was bizarre,” said a representative of the Yangon School of Politics, a new think-tank comprising young Burmese scholars, who asked to remain anonymous. “They more or less asked the entire tribunal to quit because they didn’t like one verdict.”
The main business of Parliament this time is likely to focus on business, however. In June, Thein Sein pledged a year of economic reforms in Burma, which lags behind its neighbors as one of Asia’s poorest countries despite bountiful natural resources.
The main priority for the new parliamentary session is likely to be the long-awaited Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) Law. After several redrafts, the legislature approved a version in the previous session, but Thein Sein has returned it to MPs after proposing several revisions.
If passed into law, this will update the existing 1988 code and likely pave the way for increased investment into a Burma where hotels are packed with visiting corporate delegations and investment conferences take place regularly.
Analysts say the law could be delayed, however, due to conflicting priorities in the Parliament and in the President’s Office. The Yangon School of Politics suggests that “the Parliament prefers to give national business more favorable status in liberation than foreign investors while the administration assumes creating nearly [a level] playground for both foreign investor and national businessmen.”
Nonetheless, both government and opposition say that the FDI code is necessary, for political and economic reasons. President’s Office spokesperson Nay Zin Latt said that “as we’ve [a] better relationship with the [Western] world, [the] FDI law would definitely be a priority in the upcoming session.”
Khin Maung Swe, of the opposition National Democratic Force (NDF), said that “we need an investment law, but we will propose some amendments, once more. We are taking advice from experts overseas on how to come up with a good law.”
Getting the investment law passed and bringing jobs and economic improvements to Burma is important for government stability, says Giulia Zino, senior Asia analyst at risk analysis company Maplecroft, which has published several recent reports on Burma’s reforms.
In an email, Zino outlined that “it is of pivotal interest for reformists in government and opposition to ensure that foreign investment and development follow reforms, in order to avoid retaliation against progress from hardliners and discontent amongst the public—where expectations for improved living standards are rising.”
Parliament could be overshadowed, however, by ongoing ethnic and sectarian strife in western and northern Burma. After June riots, tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims remain displaced and a government investigation commission into the violence is stalled, according to comedian and commission member Zarganar.
In Kachin State, almost-daily skirmishes take place between Burmese government troops and the Kachin Independence Army, although peace talks have been proposed for Ruili in China, close to the rebel headquarters.
Despite the foreseen emphasis on economic issues, ethnic conflict is also likely to be discussed in Parliament, says the NLD. “Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will use the Parliament to try for peace in the country,” said Tin Oo.
“She wants to help resolve the conflicts with the Kachin and in Arakan State with the Bengali Muslims,” he added, with the latter term referring to the Rohingya, dismissed by many Burmese as Bangladeshi immigrants and denied citizenship under a repressive 1982 law that has been denounced by humanitarian groups.
Asked whether the Rohingya should be granted Burmese citizenship, Tin Oo said that “those who are not legal citizens of this country cannot stay,” but added that it was difficult to establish how many Rohingya could be entitled to Burmese citizenship.
“This is a difficult problem to solve,” he said. “When I was a young man, there were no Rohingya in Burma.”
Another item likely to be discussed in Parliament is a proposed new media law, which like the FDI code, has been much-delayed and is now subject to revision. New Information Minister Aung Kyi has promised a redraft, suggesting he prefers less restrictive legislation—although it is unclear whether prohibitions on criticizing the state will be removed.
Regardless, the new minister has the backing of the opposition.“He is very much an appropriate person for the job,” assessed Tin Oo.
The media law has also been deemed important by the government, according Naypyidaw spokesperson Nay Zinn Latt. “Becoming a democratic society and getting checks and balances by the Fourth Estate is a priority,” he told The Irrawaddy.