NAYPYIDAW, Myanmar -- Some degree of freedom has been seen in military-controlled Myanmar (Burma), as foreign media were allowed into the reclusive nation to cover a parliamentary session that was the first convened in 23 years.
A reporter for The Asahi Shimbun observed proceedings in the People's Parliament, the Lower House, on Sept. 8 and 9.
The parliament is located in Naypyidaw, which became the capital in 2006 after it was moved there from Yangon, Myanmar's largest city.
While Naypyidaw was initially populated mainly by those in the military, the civilian population has also increased along with the development of the new capital.
The parliament is contained within an approximately 3.3-square-kilometer compound surrounded by a double layer of walls. While there are 31 government buildings, housing the two chambers of parliament, a state guesthouse and the offices of the nation's president and vice presidents, few people were seen in the streets.
The Lower House has 440 representatives. About three-fourths of the members wore the traditional attire of the ethnic group they belong to. The other members wearing khaki uniforms were those from the military, which was assured of holding a certain quota of seats.
One lawmaker asked, "Any expropriation of land should be kept to the minimum in order to limit the effects on the lives of the people."
A Cabinet minister responded, "The government will monitor the situation to determine if excessive expropriation is being conducted."
Applause greeted even comments that were critical of the government.
Sai Zom Pha, a 35-year-old director with the private Myanmar International Television, expressed surprise at the degree of free debate.
However, reporters were not allowed to directly contact lawmakers, and the only reporting allowed was from the press seats set aside in the parliament. Censorship of stories was also still in place.
Still, a man reading a weekly magazine in a local market said, "There has been an increase in articles about politics. That is a good change."
A police officer approached and asked, "What are you doing?"
After explaining that the reporter had received permission to cover the parliament, the police officer left.
Despite the new show of openness in Myanmar, monitoring by security officials continues.
On Aug. 25, Thein Nyunt, an independent lower house member, proposed that the president pardon about 2,000 people considered political prisoners. Such a remark under the rule of the military junta could have led to the individual's arrest.
Thura Shwe Mann, the speaker of the People's Parliament, asked if there were any supporters of the proposal and a number of lawmakers agreed, including two among those representing the military.
The speaker urged Ko Ko, the home affairs minister, to report on the proposal to President Thein Sein.
The events of that day were reported in local newspapers, television and weekly magazines.
Thein has already submitted 17 questions or proposals to the parliament, calling for legislation to allow freedom of the press as well as a revision of the state of emergency law that made it easier to arrest pro-democracy activists. Thein said while there is a need to report on the contents beforehand to the parliament secretariat, there were no limits on what could be submitted.
Thein was formerly a member of the opposition National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, and detained for three years for criticizing the military rulers. He left the NLD after it decided to boycott the parliamentary elections held last year because it claimed the military rulers would not allow fair elections.
Thein ran in the election because of the conviction that parliamentary debate was the true course toward democracy.
However, in addition to one-quarter of lawmakers coming from the military, more than 70 percent of the remaining seats are held by members belonging to the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which was established by the military.
Thein said, "The contents of the deliberations will remain in the minutes of the proceedings and some of it has been reported in the media. The government will not be able to ignore such developments."
The new government has taken a softer approach, calling on ethnic minorities to enter a ceasefire as well as indicating the possibility of pardons to political exiles who return home.
On Aug. 19, Thein Sein met with Suu Kyi, who said the president was seeking true and positive change.
After that meeting, posters of Suu Kyi began appearing in the streets of Myanmar. Local media also began publishing stories and photos about the Nobel laureate.
A local reporter said, "Until now, we had been regulating ourselves. However, the restrictions on us have loosened after debate in parliament greatly exceeded those limits."
Even media targeting exiled Myanmar citizens that have taken a clear stance against the military rulers have partially praised developments in the parliament.
The Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) has had people in Myanmar who have cooperated with the organization arrested and sent to prison.
Toe Zaw Latt, the DVB's bureau chief in Thailand, said, "The national budget that had only been a mystery until now has been released in the parliament. That is one good point. However, an overwhelming majority of members belong to USDP. In the end, the parliament is under the thumb of the government."
Kyaw Hsan, the information minister, said in an interview, "The new government will cooperate with the media and will stress transparency and fulfilling its responsibility to explain decisions."
At the same time, he added, "Reporting can occasionally lead to social instability. The media has to understand the responsibility it has."
Although private-sector media organizations have been allowed to report, no live coverage of parliamentary proceedings has been allowed. TV news reports consisted of a summary of parliamentary debate as well as on what has been decided. There were no reports critical of the government.
Ordinary citizens also appeared hesitant to talk to reporters, likely due to fears about possible arrest.
A man in his 30s in Yangon whispered, "We have suffered so much hardship. It is no longer possible to believe any government that now says to trust it."
Aung Thein Lin, who heads the USDP chapter in Yangon, said, "We will seek a Myanmar-style of 'disciplined democracy.' "
That is the slogan used by the State Peace and Development Council, which was the highest organ of authority under military rule.
Regarding Than Shwe, who served as head of the council, Thein Lin said, "He has completely retired. However, we studied under him for more than 10 years. We still abide by his ideas."
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