Dispatches from Myanmar

Today was a great day.

I was fortunate to be invited to the historical swearing in of the new parliament members in Naypyitaw. I have been looking forward to this day since I arrived in April 2012 and it did not disappoint. In the morning I met up with some of the soon-to-be Members of Parliament at the NLD living quarters.  This is the same place where we had done a budget training in a cramped and steamy room almost three years ago to the date for the small group of NLD MPs that lived there. (At that time, our team of trainers had been conducting a training at the parliament for MPs during the day and were asked by Aung San Suu Kyi to come and do a training in the evening for her MPs.) Today it was swarming with NLD MPs in their traditional pini dress (an orange-y colored material that reflects their peasant roots). The whole compound was buzzing and people were running from dorm to dorm getting ready for their big day. The NLD went from 41 to 390 MPs now converging on Naypyitaw, the capital.

A sea of NLD MPs enter the parliament building

I was with one of our American Council for Young Political Leaders (ACYPL) delegates, Oo Kyaw Maung, and he immediately introduced me to the new upper house deputy speaker, Aye Thar Aung, who is from Oo Kyaw’s Arakan National Party and was selected for the position in a show of national reconciliation.

We also met the upper house speaker, U Mahn Win Khaing Than, and Thein Swe, one of the Richardson Scholars who came to Wisconsin in the summer of 2013. He was re-elected as an upper house MP from Ayeyarwaddy Division and is a close confidant of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s. As someone who has already served for the past three years, he was tasked with corralling the leadership and new members.

Richardson Scholar Thein Swe talks to the media in the lobby of the parliament

We were accompanied by Naing Ko Ko who had gotten us the tickets to the inauguration.  Today was the first time I met him but when I told him I worked for the Richardson Center he told me the story of meeting the governor in 1994 when then-Congressman Richardson visited Insein Prison to meet with political prisoners. He said it was one of the highlights during a dark ten years in prison.  He later fled to Thailand and now is getting his PhD at the Australian National University and is an advisor to the NLD.

Ni Ni May Myint, a participant of the Women to Wisconsin program, on her way to her swearing in.The restaurant at the housing area was full of Richardson Center friends who we had trained or taken to the US or partnered with in the past three years. I was very excited to see one of the youngest MPs and one of our Women to Wisconsin participants, Ni Ni May Myint dressed and ready to take her seat in the grandiose parliament building. We then went to meet the NLD leadership, including U Tin Oo, the patron of the NLD and U Win Htein, spokesman and former MP for NLD. Every time I meet U Win Htein he tells me about how much he appreciated the Governor coming to visit and that he still has the photos of the meeting. He was very jovial and was cracking jokes as always. He said “This feels very anti-climactic because now that we took over all we do is have meetings.” But it’s a much different scene for the NLD than ten years ago when many of these MPs were behind bars for doing little more than disagreeing with the government.

Throughout the day I saw four of the Richardson Center Scholars who were MPs in the previous session.  Ma Cho is now a state MP in Ayeyarwaddy, Aung Soe and Thein Swe were re-elected to seats in the upper and lower houses respectively and Min Thu is working as an advisor to the MPs.

Richardson Center representative Mindy Walker with Win Htein before heading to the inauguration ceremony

In the parliament building, we ran into new MPs that we had previously trained and those who had training institutes with whom we partnered. The vibe was very positive and as the media swarmed the lobby, we walked up to the viewing area to watch the short inauguration and approval of lower house speaker and deputy speaker. It was swift and peaceful and everything I had hoped for. From prisoners to parliament members, they now have a lot on their plate to deal with and hopefully they will tackle those issues head on because there is little time to waste in showing the people who put their hopes in them that they are up to the job.

Now the hard work for them begins…