Interview: Franklin De Vrieze

(Above: Franklin De Vrieze, Devin O’Shaughnessy (WFD’s Director of Programmes) and Anthony Smith (WFD CEO) meet the Secretary General of the Hluttaw and his staff in Naypyidaw)

Over the next three years Westminster Foundation for Democracy will deliver its biggest programme yet, helping Burma’s Hluttaw meet the expectations of its citizens as it strives to strengthen its position in national life.

WFD spoke with consultant Franklin De Vrieze, whose extensive parliamentary strengthening experience includes work for UNDP, OSCE and the EU, on his work with WFD and the programme in Naypyidaw.

WFD: What are the latest developments, Franklin?

FDV: After the elections from last year, and with the new Parliament taking office in March, we see a new kind of acceleration in activity. There’s a lot of new members – 80% of the intake – which means they have to learn a lot. On the other hand, the staff are now quite experienced – having been new themselves in the first mandate. The staff, to their credit, are now advising the new members. And the new members are very eager to learn.

WFD: They’re determined to learn more about their role?

FDV: Yes, MPs in Burma do read a lot. Unlike in other parliaments where MPs rely on their staff, demanding one-pagers on everything, in Naypyidaw they study a lot. The library’s reading rooms are always full of MPs reading. They have a strong eagerness to learn.

WFD: What would you say is one of the biggest challenges facing MPs?

FDV: With a new Government having taken office in Myanmar, there is a big expectation that much existing legislation will either be repealed or revised. The Myanmar Parliament is currently reviewing over 400 laws, adopted either during the previous Parliament or beforehand. This constitutes a big workload, but there is also a clear need for some guidance on the best methodological ways how to approach this review of existing legislation. In order to have an informed decision on this, it’s important to know what is the impact: what has worked, what doesn’t work.

WFD: And this is where you come in?

FDV: I’ve done a comparative analysis of post-legislative scrutiny in different countries, looking at the practices on the parliaments’ role in oversight on the implementation of legislation and parliament’s role in evaluating the impact of legislation. We aim to present this comparative analysis to the Myanmar Parliament, and then conduct a workshop to reflect on the options available.

WFD: What are those options?

FDV: In broad terms, we can say there are two approaches. We have the UK approach, where all committees have the power and the mandate to do post-legislative scrutiny as part of their regular oversight job. And then you have the Indonesian model, where you have one committee which has both the mandate to do post-legislative scrutiny and also the resources, through a dedicated research unit. By presenting these approaches, the Hluttaw will be able to consider its long-term options.

The idea would be that the comparative analysis would be shared with other parliaments. We can also develop a manual or a handbook on post-legislative scrutiny which can be used by various parliaments throughout the region and the world.

WFD: Hasn’t anyone does this before?

FDV: Traditionally post-legislative work didn’t get a lot of attention, so far in parliamentary strengthening, most of the attention has been going to the adoption of legislation and the legislative process. So far, not so much attention has been given to post-legislative scrutiny. Many programmes have looked to the oversight role of parliament, but not specifically assessing the impact of legislation.

The Westminster Foundation for Democracy has the potential to substantially contribute in this area. A number of WFD’s other programmes can take this on board – for instance the programme in Indonesia is particularly interested.

WFD: What are the other elements of the programme in Burma?

FDV: First of all, the programme is building upon the House of Commons’ assistance over the last two years – there are now three full-time seconded staff from the House of Commons based in Naypyidaw. This WFD programme builds on that, but goes further in the sense that a number of additional programme components have been added in terms of thematic support to committees.

Another area we will be providing support is the relationship between Parliament and Government. Under the previous administration, the relationship was difficult. Communication channels were very centralised. Now a direct line between each ministry and the relevant select committee has been established. We want to formalise this.

We also want to look into issues of parliamentary oversight, and how committees can organise consultations, public hearings and even field visits. This latter would be a new practice; Myanmar is a huge country and some areas take two to three days to reach. Still, exploring this would lead to a discussion about how much constituency work is possible.

WFD: What themes from Burma are relevant across the region?

FDV: Firstly, there’s questions of youth unemployment. Throughout Asia you have a young population. It’s mostly online, and seeing what’s possible in terms of quality of life. That’s a key issue, creating economic and social opportunities – the challenge is huge.

Another, I think, is the environment question; this is very sensitive in Myanmar and the tensions there are reflected elsewhere in the Asian context.

Then there is the question of ethnicities, another important and sensitive topic. There is an appetite to learn from the peace processes in other countries, and particularly the role of parliament in this.

WFD: Franklin, thanks for your time.

FDV: My pleasure.

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