Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 19:55 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 19:55 | SYDNEY

Voting the 'Australian way' in Myanmar

19 March 2012 09:22

Jim Della-Giacoma is South East Asia Project Director for the International Crisis Group, based in Jakarta. The photo in this post, of The Nay Pyi Taw copy of the Shwedagon temple, is by the author.

In some parts of the world, the secret ballot is still known as the Australian ballot. It was a democratic innovation first used in elections by the Parliament of Victoria in 1856. In Myanmar, the struggle over when and how it can be used is giving us a glimpse into the evolving dynamic between the country's legislature and executive. It is more evidence that the way the country is being governed is changing, right down to the village level.

In September 2011, the Government submitted to the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (or Union Assembly) the Ward and Village Tract Administration Bill. It proposes, among other things, that each group of ten households would be required to submit the name and personal details of a person living in their ward or village tract who meets the criteria to be an administrator. The original bill said these nominees would then be selected through a 'negotiated selection system', but this was amended by lawmakers to have them chosen by a 'secret ballot system'.

When the bill was sent to President U Thein Sein for approval, it was returned to the parliament with the proposal that this change be reversed and the original clause on negotiation be adopted. On 22 February, according the privately-owned Myanmar Times, legislators in the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw or bicameral Union Assembly voted down the president's proposal 278 to 236, with 12 representatives abstaining. 'Only (the) secret ballot system can reveal their true wishes for selecting a leader of a ward or village tract. A negotiated selection system cannot prevent inappropriate use of use of influence to affect the result', said U Aung Thein, representative for Ywarngan.

Some believe this independence is fueled by a growing personal rivalry between the President and parliamentary leaders, all of them reformers. Others see the military staying out of politics and votes as long as their core interests are left alone. Either way, what is now self-evident is that the bicameral Union Assembly is taking a life of its own and it is not just the 'rubber stamp' legislature many imagined it would be.

Pyithu Hluttaw or Lower House speaker U Shwe Mann has also recently pushed back against the executive over whether parliamentary committees have the status and authority to scrutinise the government's program, including the budget. 'The Union Government should cooperate with our committees. If not the legislative check and balance system will be lost', he told a media conference on 20 February.

Importantly, the increasingly lively legislature is matched by a freer media, now able to report local politics in an unprecedented way after decades of restrictions. Since Facebook was unblocked in September 2011 and now that mobile telephones are more affordable, journalists are posting or sending brief updates in real time without prior approval of the censors. Editors report that the increasingly mercurial censorship board has gradually loosened controls ahead of the adoption of a new media law. They do still cut reports on labour disputes and trim articles about the military, but those about parliamentary proceedings are apparently never touched.

After decades of isolation, Myanmar still has much hidden from view in the way it is governed and public policy is made, but increasing transparency, especially in the parliament, is telling us more and more about government priorities, concerns, and even rivalries. The generals still know how to keep their secrets, but it appears that these days they also know about the importance of voting too – especially in the Australian way.