Strengthening democracy in Myanmar

Neil Carmichael

For many people, Myanmar is still Burma. Older readers will recall Field Marshal ‘Bill’ Slim and his Fourteenth Army during the World War Two campaigns against the Japanese in Burma; others will imagine (or enjoy) boat trips along River Irrawaddy – a main trade and transport route running north/south; but, most will think of Aung San Suu Kyi and her struggle with the armed forces leadership as she endeavours to embed democracy after half a century of sometimes brutal military rule.

Ahead of President Barack Obama’s visit to Myanmar in 2012, his special adviser for human rights, Samantha Power, noted that “Serious human rights abuses against civilians in several regions continue, including against women and children.” President Obama proceeded to use the influence of his office to encourage Myanmar to open-up and turn to democracy.

More recent events – including the dreadful treatment of the Rohingya refugees – suggest the fledgling democracy remains vulnerable. It is against this background that the Westminster Foundation of Democracy (WFD), with the support of the UK Department of International Development, is working to strengthen parliament (Hluttaw) and the capacity of its members to hold the government to account. If good government is to take root, the conditions for it to do so must be created and nurtured.

The WFD team reporting to the Hluttaw leadership

WFD is running a series of programmes to mentor, support and develop committees in the Hluttaw. This is augmented by training modules on such processes as post-legislative scrutiny involving techniques for stakeholder engagement, evidence collection and interrogation, report writing with clear recommendations, and promotion of conclusions across government.

Bringing all this together through holding formal committee inquiries – a first in Myanmar – will give committees a sense of leverage on policy issues, empowerment through being able to monitor the implementation of policy and, crucially, an awareness of responsibility by holding others to account. The programme continues until the summer but feedback, so far, is encouraging.

Awards dinner – Hluttaw researchers/staff having completed the ‘Post-legislative Scrutiny’ course.

This blogger is working with the education committees. Education in Myanmar is, basically, a tattered and battered version of the English system of the 1940s/50s following the Butler Education Act 1944. Nothing hugely positive has happened since then so there is plenty to do.

Unleashing the strong motivation of the committee members to radically improve schools and colleges in Myanmar has been the key to developing parliamentary tools, customs and procedures. This bodes well for the WFD programme because it shows there is a healthy appetite for genuine and lasting reform through democratic processes.

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