The momentous elections in November have returned hundreds of new Members of Parliament (MPs) who are going to come to Nay Pyi Taw and enter the Parliament in a couple of weeks from now. Over the next five years these new MPs will be addressing many political, social and economic challenges that the country is facing. Expectations are high among the general public, MPs and the international partners of Myanmar to develop and stabilise democracy. With increasing intensity preparations for the post-election period have dominated the work of the staff of the Parliament in Nay Pyi Taw.
Everyone in the new Parliament will need time to settle into their new roles as MPs, elected and appointed representatives, as well as the people working in the Hluttaw. This time is important in a situation where democracy is still not firmly settled. The new MPs will identify ways to develop an institutional parliamentary attitude and willingness to respect and integrate the rights and views of those who are not in the majority. Yet, it seems many MPs will also face some more mundane challenges in Nay Pyi Taw, such as appropriate accommodation, creating a more susceptible atmosphere in the Parliament complex that encourages open exchange and interaction. Some ideas immediately come to mind such as installing more catering facilities but also to establish a solar-powered electric system of transport; e.g. light and easy to navigate mini-vehicles that would allow MPs and staff to move freely and spontaneously within the compound facilitating their communication and exchange.
Preparing Hluttaw staff
One of the most inspiring opportunities the new chapter of parliamentary history of Myanmar will be how MPs and more than 1,500 staff working for the Hluttaw are going to jointly take forward democracy. Over the last years a number of activities have been carried out to develop the capacity of the staff working in Parliament. For instance, staff of the UK House of Commons supported the development of the Research Service as well as Committee Secretariat, the UNDP and the Inter-parliamentary Union (IPU) assisted, among its many other activities, in developing a comprehensive welcome package for the new Parliament. This included the organisation and facilitation of a study visit in September, funded and hosted by the European Parliament (EP) to Brussels. Here a delegation of the top management of the three houses of the Hluttaw, led by Director-General Kyaw Soe of the Union Parliament, familiarised themselves with the approach, methods and procedures of the EP in organising the transition from one legislature to the next on a technical level. How are the new members welcomed? What is done to make the check-in hassle-free and speedy, from handing out ID-cards to information about salaries, allowances and travel arrangements? Who provides instructions to the MP for the handling of the voting system? Directly from Brussels the delegation travelled to Berlin. Here elbarlament was honoured to organise a study visit on the regional dimension of democracy but mainly focussing on public information. This focus is an obvious necessity in order to inform if and how the Parliament is meeting the expectations placed in it.
Public information – a key factor
The elections have been a success not least because the public was well informed about the process. Elections are a single event, which requires the direct involvement of the citizens. Yet, citizens are so far not very familiar with the working of representative democracy. While the attention commenced being drawn to the work of the Parliament over the last years, the general public`s attention remained glued to the role of individuals and the broader political question of transition to a new form of governance. Starting in February 2016, MPs will have the chance to assume a more prominent role in the political process. This means the institution of the Parliament will need to be ready to inform even more, better and responsively about the work of the MPs, the Hluttaw´s role in the political system and how one can get access to and receive information about the Parliament.
Already in 2013 the leadership and management of the Hluttaw anticipated such a development. They invited elbarlament to develop a parliamentary support project based on the requirements and requests from their staff. The aim was to build the individual and collective capacity of the Parliament office to develop a comprehensive approach towards public information. This cooperation was possible thanks to the intensified relations between Myanmar and Germany and the funding provided by the German Federal Foreign Office aimed to strengthen democratic institutions in Myanmar.
Parliaments in Europe, and in particular the German parliamentary environment, have gained over the last three decades experience in public information from which the colleagues in Nay Pyi Taw wished to benefit. In 2015, a series of workshops in Nay Pyi Taw and the study trip to Berlin were organised by elbarlament. This work cumulated in December 2015 in the detailed analysis of existing and prospective public information strategies, services and products which will give the newly elected MPs an orientation on what is already being done and where the staff in the Hluttaw sees potential for development. These documents are being finalised and will inform activities during the second term of the parliament. While exponential growth took place during the last years, there is a wish and need to integrate better internal and external information flow. To succeed, Parliament will necessarily provide everyone working within its compound with more information. Investments there will pay huge dividends as external communication, mainly with the general public and civil society, becomes more effective. Thanks to our project, preparations for the upgrading of visitors´ services are well underway. There is agreement that mobile outreach tools, such as travelling exhibitions and info-trucks to bring information about the parliament to places all over the country, will need to be developed. Such facilities are also a platform for local MPs to inform about their work in Nay Pyi Taw. Another field of action is the integration of internet-based information tools from facebook.com, to websites, mobile apps to web-TV and radio and databases, also across the three Hluttaw houses. This will also require establishing a public information and media strategy covering the entire Hluttaw.
Hluttaw entering dialogue
Yet, the largest single challenge remains. How to work and support media reporting about the work of the elected representatives? The new MPs will be tested soon, as they will not be spared of criticism either. Making democracy public also means to accept that also the scrutinisers are subject to scrutiny, that MPs are not only holding others accountable for their action but are themselves held accountable by the public. Building a platform and attitude of an informed and open exchange on policy and politics through and with the media professionals in the country remains crucial. This will open the way for a dialogue of the Hluttaw with the citizens and become a representative of the entire population and not only political parties. An important aim of every Parliament´s public information work.
Expectations for the future quality of the democratic process and the Parliament are high. The interest in the work of the Parliament will increase among citizens of Myanmar, civil society, business and lobbyists, international partners and hence the domestic and international media. A public information and media strategy will help to be prepared to manage those expectations. Therefore plans are being made to continue the cooperation with elbarlament in 2016 based on a renewed invitation of the Hluttaw. Already now, the participants of our activities told us that they feel more prepared for the times ahead. Their trust and confidence in public information matters has increased, and most importantly they have started to develop a professional information culture. As the activities have always brought together staff from the three houses of Parliament they also help to strengthen internal cohesion in what is probably the most dynamic and open political institution in Myanmar.
Tobias Flessenkemper is leading the project “elbarlament in Myanmar” which supports the staff and management of the Parliament Office in developing their public information capacities, funded by the German Federal Foreign Office. He is Managing Director of elbarlament.org, an independent organisation providing advice in democratic and good governance. elbarlament is member of the community of practice of the European Partnership for Democracy (www.epd.eu).