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In Myanmar, a “sham” parliament stirs to life

In Myanmar, a "sham" parliament stirs to life

NAYPYITAW: In Myanmar’s sprawling parliamentary complex, lawmakers flexed their newly democratic muscles on Thursday. Some drafted anti-graft legislation for one of the world’s most corrupt nations or clamored for transparency on a typically secret national budget.

Others wanted answers from the government: why are train lines across the country woefully inefficient? Will the government move faster to revamp clearer foreign-exchange rate laws and hold companies to task for shabby infrastructure on state contracts?

Derided as a well-choreographed sham in one of the world’s most authoritarian countries when it opened a year ago, Myanmar’s parliament began a third session on Thursday with feisty stirrings of democracy, under pressure to accelerate economic and political reforms that could soon convince the West to lift decades-old sanctions.

The main legislation up for debate requires the government to seek parliamentary approval for its budget. That alone is a significant change for Myanmar, where past military regimes drew up spending plans in secrecy, often carving out largesse for the army, which handed power to a nominally civilian government in March last year.

In the cavernous hallways of the lower house and the gilded main legislative chamber, legislators expressed unvarnished views, including some scathing criticism of government policy by those in the opposition.

It wasn’t always this way.

“When we first came to parliament, we were worried we might be arrested,” said U Ba Shin, a member of the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party, a major ethnic party that won nine of the lower house’s 440 seats in the first general election in two decades in November 2010.

“Now there is less fear among the people. But many people still don’t know their rights or speak their minds in parliament. There is big room for improvement.”

Myanmar’s purpose-built capital, Naypyitaw, has been a curiosity since it was built from scratch seven years ago, a virtual fortress where the then-military rulers of the former Burma isolated themselves some 320 km (200 miles) from the largest city, Yangon.

Bestowed with manicured, heavily watered lawns and forbidding stone walls, Naypyitaw bears no resemblance to the rest of the country, one of Asia’s poorest, including nearby villages of mostly thatched wooden huts. Parliament’s 31 buildings with pagoda-style roofs are its main attraction. Its wide boulevards and streets are eerily quiet.

In addition to the lower house there is a 224-seat senate. There are also 14 assemblies spread across the country.

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