New era as Aung San Suu Kyi's novice MPs brace for office

Myanmar member of parliament Tin Thit in the city development committee building in Naypyidaw, on Jan 30, 2016.
Myanmar member of parliament Tin Thit in the city development committee building in Naypyidaw, on Jan 30, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

NAYPYIDAW (AFP) - In a modest dormitory in Myanmar's capital Naypyidaw, novice MP Tin Thit recites a poem he has penned called "No Retreat", steeling himself to enter Myanmar's parliament carrying the dreams of a nation left traumatised by army rule.

A poet, editor, activist - and now newly elected MP - he is among hundreds of political newcomers poised to take their seats on Monday (Feb 1) in the country's most democratic legislature in generations, following the huge November landslide win by Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD).

"This is our era," the newly minted NLD lawmaker told AFP on Saturday as he prepared for a last-ditch round of parliamentary training organised by his party, brushing off concerns about his and his colleagues' lack of experience.

"This is our responsibility. We will just do the job we have to do," he said.

The new parliament marks a momentous political shift for a country that was held in the chokehold of oppressive junta rule for decades.

Many of the NLD MPs have served prison time in Myanmar's long struggle for democratic change. They are a diverse bunch, counting singers, lawyers and businessmen among their ranks.

But few have any experience of the cut and thrust of Myanmar's complex parliamentary process.

They will need to show the country's 51 million people that they can deliver the "change" that was virtually the sole message of Suu Kyi's triumphant election bid.

And that will not be easy.

While the junta handed power to a quasi-civilian reformist government in 2011, the nation remains blighted by poverty and corruption.

Junta-era neglect has left a legacy of ravaged education, healthcare, infrastructure and a creaking bureaucracy.

Ethnic minority divisions have also torn deep fractures across the nation and civil wars continue to ravage border areas, fought by a military that has ensured it will retain huge political and economic powers under the new government.

"Our region is another world," said Cing Ngaih Mang, a newly elected MP for a small ethnic minority party from western Chin State, marvelling at the grandeur of Myanmar's junta-built capital.

"The difference in development is like comparing earth and sky," she told AFP, adding that she had been watching parliamentary TV to brush up on protocol.

For his part Tin Thit never aspired to be a politician. But he managed to topple former defence minister Wai Lwin in November's vote, winning a lower house seat in the military heartland of Naypyidaw.

Some 390 NLD MPs are due to take their seats in the national parliament on Monday, turning the tables on the army-backed party that dominated the legislature alongside a bloc of unelected military MPs for the last five years.

While the NLD-led parliament will be seen as essentially a rubber stamp for Suu Kyi's government, complex political manoeuvring awaits in the coming days.

The parliament will shortly nominate a new president to replace incumbent Thein Sein, a former general, in late March.

Suu Kyi is barred from the position by a military-scripted constitution because she married and had children with a foreigner.

She has vowed to rule "above" the next leader, a move that is likely to put her at loggerheads with the army which holds an effective veto on charter change because it retains a quarter of seats in the legislature.

Only around two dozen NLD MPs entering parliament Monday, including Suu Kyi, have prior legislative experience, meaning the party has few veterans to show new lawmakers the ropes.

To combat this the party has been running workshops in recent weeks, while new MPs flocked to Naypyidaw to watch their predecessors in the last days of the previous parliament which ended on Friday.

At a series of squat regimented housing blocks where shabby one-storey dorms cost US$4 (S$5.70) a day, new MPs were moving in.

"We can endure it, we came here for the country," said one NLD lawmaker who asked to remain anonymous, adding many had "served time in prison" and could get by without luxury.

Tin Thit said the experience was like a reunion, with former cellmates, school friends and other acquaintances gathered together in a the junta-built capital.

He served seven years in jail for poems deemed critical of the state.

But the 49-year-old is also eager to put the past behind him, in a sentiment that reflects the extraordinary scenes of camaraderie in the parliament in recent days as the army elite sought to hand over power with grace - even throwing a party to mark the occasion.

"We need to move forward," he told AFP.