Burma’s military-backed MPs handed power over courts
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Burma’s military-backed MPs handed power over courts

Every day we see reminders about the shortcomings of Burma’s democratic reform: conflict in Kachin state, ethno-religious violence in Arakan state, continued incarceration of political prisoners, and so on. But the more technical issues often don’t get the media attention they deserve, despite their potential to have a more ingrained and lasting effect on the country’s future than the above examples.

A case in point is the fiasco that unfurled in parliament this week: President Thein Sein (apparently reluctantly) signed a bill that gives parliament a degree of influence over the judiciary that calls into serious doubt the independence of Burma’s legal system.

“Legal analysts say the changes constitute a cynical attempt by parliament, which is dominated by former military cronies, to exert pressure on the tribunal without having to alter Burma’s controversial 2008 legislation,” writes DVB. “The new law hands parliament the authority to challenge the tribunal’s decisions, and greater input over the appointment of its chairman, who would in turn be required to report back to them and the president on his work, raising questions over his independence.”

Under the former junta, there was no judicial independence – the country’s courts were essentially processing rooms for the ‘criminal’ opposition, where verdicts were foregone conclusions. Yet a supposed transition to democracy should have at its core an overhaul of the key operating mechanisms of a dictatorship, of which control of the judges is one. This week’s move suggests that the pressure on Thein Sein to maintain this hierarchy is stronger than he is.

The Burmese public’s ability to question parliament’s bloated powers in this ‘democratic’ era has also been placed under the spotlight. Last week a blogger, known only as Dr Seik Phwa, wrote that the country’s legislature was acting “above the law” in its attempt to gain greater control of the legal system.

But so sensitive is this issue that one MP tabled the creation of a special committee to investigate the blogger. His motion was passed by 347 votes to 157, suggesting that an overwhelming majority in parliament want judicial control.

This should be cause for great concern, given that the most MPs are either uniformed military, or military-aligned, elitist members of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) whose political outlook was shaped by their careers under the former junta. Their interference in, and potential sabotaging of, court cases that could threaten the military’s social and economic standing – human rights abuses, land confiscation, corruption and so on – would bode very ill for the country’s future.

Thein Sein’s reported defense of judicial independence should be noted and commended. Why he buckled however is not clear, although it again raises questions as to how much power he actually has, particularly given ongoing military attacks in Kachin state despite several calls for their cessation. Australian academic Nicholas Farrelly makes an interesting point in the New Mandala blog: “Parts of the emerging story suggest that within the regime Thein Sein needs to bolster wavering support by letting the army off the leash to prosecute its war.”

This may also account for why he has capitulated to the hawks in parliament over the constitutional tribunal law. At the same time, however, we really don’t know Thein Sein: he was a key architect of much of the former junta’s policies, and so the argument could still be made that the progressive wave he is riding on is a front to distract the world while business continues as usual in Burma. Either way, unless he takes bold steps that hinder parliament’s attempts to snatch undue power, we could see a continuation of Burma’s ugly past.