Burmese parliamentary speaker Shwe Mann & Commission-itis

Burma loves little more than a good commission…a commission a day keeps international scrutiny away. Or at least that’s what we took away from “The Current Political Situation in Myanmar: Perspectives from the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw,” a panel discussion with Burmese parliamentary speaker Shwe Mann and a handful of his parliamentary colleagues.

The June 13 event, hosted by the Woodrow Wilson Center, Center for Strategic & International Studies, State Department, National Democratic Institute, and the Institute for Representative Government, marked Shwe Mann’s first public appearance during his visit to Washington, DC. Given how much legitimacy co-sponsors gave to the event, and Shwe Mann’s carefully executed timidity, if you didn’t know about Shwe Mann’s career history – Joint Chief of Staff and the third-ranked general under the military regime (protege of senior general and head of state from 1992-2011 Than Shwe) – and extremely crooked record on human rights, you might think Burma’s parliament is a jolly fun judicial investigation fest.

When asked about women’s rights and constitutional reform, Shwe Mann swept Burma’s evasion of justice and accountability under the rug with his doublespeak: “We are reviewing.” Asked about land confiscation, Shwe Mann responded with a confident, “We have resolved some of the problem” and “we have also elected laws in order to prevent such things happening in the future.” (Pray tell, are you referring to your 2012 Farmland Law that strips farmers of land and production rights so the government can more easily confiscate land to create investment opportunities? Because that’s the law I saw.)

Despite forming numerous “review” commissions over the past year, the government has accepted no responsibility for attacks against minority groups, refused to stymie its brutal tactics, prevented the establishment of an independent judiciary, and avoided constitutional reform. Shwe Mann is one of the few who has the power to institute real reform in Burma. He heads the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party, which holds more than 80% of parliamentary seats. While local actors and new parliamentarians may have some will to pursue reform, such reform is impossible without amending the draconian 2008 Constitution, written by military leaders including Shwe Mann, President Thein Sein, and Than Shwe before they transitioned to a more “democratic” government. The Constitution ensures that 25% of parliamentary seats will belong to the military and that the Constitution can’t be amended without the support of the military.

The roots of Burma’s human rights abuses are grounded in the Constitution and legal code: an anti-demonstration law stifles freedom of expression, a targeted citizenship law prohibits Burma’s ethnic groups from receiving basic rights and protection, a land law allows land confiscation, a press law restricts freedom of speech. None of Burma’s commissions have addressed – or really can address – the legal labyrinth that plagues all civilians outside the umbrella of impunity.

To watch this doublespeak superbowl, check out the video here. Skip to minute 35:45 for Shwe Mann’s introductory speech. Then watch the Q & A, where things really get good.

Shwe Mann may very well become Burma’s president in 2015.

“If there were a position higher than or more important than the president, I would want that post,” Shwe Mann told the media earlier this month.

“I believe that if I became president, I could do more than the others to achieve unity among ethnic groups, national reconciliation, rule of law, regional stability, and peace.”

He apparently can’t start achieving those goals now in his role as speaker…


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