By Hanna Hindstrom
Burma’s union parliament today passed an unprecedented motion to investigate a dissident blogger, who criticised the legislature for acting “above the law” in an internet article published on Monday.
The emergency proposal, tabled by lower house representative, Dr Soe Yin, called for the creation of a committee “to investigate and take actions” against the blogger — known only as Dr Seik Phwa — after he publicly questioned the parliament’s legislative powers. The motion was passed by 347 votes to 157, while 42 abstained.
Dr Soe Yin, a member of the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), accused the blogger of defaming the union parliament and “misleading the public and the international community” in a recent blog post called “Is the parliament above the law?”.
In the article, Dr Seik Phwa challenged the legislature’s decision to grant itself greater powers over the election of Burma’s constitutional tribunal judges. The article mocked their decision to overrule President Thein Sein’s recommendations on a new bill to amend the country’s constitutional tribunal law, despite being accused of breaching the constitution.
“The very people who swore to safeguard the constitution are now violating it intentionally,” Dr Seik Phwa wrote. He further mocked the parliament by suggesting that a new constitutional clause should be added, which says: “No matter what the constitution says, a decision approved by parliamentary speakers and their colleagues should be adopted.”
It follows months of disagreements between the union parliament and government over the role of Burma’s constitutional tribunal. The row kicked off in March last year when the court issued an order limiting the power of parliamentary committees and commissions. It culminated in the dismissal of all nine judges last September after the parliament voted to impeach them.
The legislature is now seeking to expand its powers to encompass the election of all new tribunal judges. But according to Burma’s controversial 2008 constitution, the judges should be appointed together with the president and the speakers of the lower and upper houses of parliament; three each. However, Burma’s constitution also allows the parliament to ignore legislative recommendations made by the president.
Lower house representative Ye Htun told DVB on Monday that a group of MPs had discussed and approved of the president’s amendments, but were overruled in the final vote.
Analysts say the ongoing dispute demonstrates not only the maturation of Burma’s nascent democracy, but also growing discord within its ruling party. The parliamentary standoff has been dominated by members of Thein Sein’s own affiliated USDP party, and largely spearheaded by his former army colleague and speaker of the lower house, Shwe Mann.
But the implication of Dr Seik Phwa risks denting Burma’s progress on media freedom. The parliament’s decision to investigate the blogger comes the same week that the government abolished a draconian law on public speeches, previously used to silence critics.
Since coming into power in March 2011, President Thein Sein has led a dramatic democratic reform programme in the former pariah state, including freeing political prisoners and removing media restrictions. But in a report released on Thursday, Reporters Sans Frontière (RSF) warned that journalists are still prevented from openly criticising the government.
“[Journalists have] tried to publish articles critical of the authorities but quickly discovered that the government’s red lines had not retreated as much as they had imagined,” said the report.
Burma currently ranks 169 out of 179 on RSF’s press freedom index.
Win Aung contributed reporting.