Hardship and no politics in Myanmar’s ‘jail cell’ MP housing

Naypyidaw (Myanmar) (AFP) - Surveying the tiny concrete cube where he must live with four relatives, Myanmar opposition MP Ohn Kyaing is once again reminded of his time as a political prisoner.

"I was in jail for 17 years... This is just like a cell, except now my family are with me," said the 72-year-old from Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) at his lodgings in the junta-built capital Naypyidaw.

All MPs who travel to the capital from across the country are assigned housing during sessions of the parliament, which took root in 2011 under a quasi-civilian government.

Those wealthy enough could opt to stay long term in a hotel, but among the opposition parties, the vast majority of MPs have no choice but to live in the cramped and regimented green-painted blocks that are subsidised by the government.

On the contrary, the ruling party provides relatively well-equipped and free dormitories for its MPs in the party headquarters. The military representatives live in their own secluded barracks.

Now, as the legislature shuts down ahead of an election tipped to bring huge gains for the NLD, the opposition MPs can't wait to empty out of their military-style dorms.

“We want to go back home,” said the veteran NLD MP's wife Than Than, 71, who together with her daughter, grandson and great niece moved in with the ailing Ohn Kyaing to help look after him.

The family, who have a home in Yangon -- the country's largest city and former capital -- have squeezed into a space meant for one, cooking on a makeshift stove in one corner of the room and sleeping in beds lined up with scant space to walk in between.

Naypyidaw, which means the “Abode of Kings” in Burmese, for this family at least has other connotations.

Built up from the tropical scrub in central Myanmar only a decade ago, the city was suddenly announced as the country's new capital by its former general rulers for reasons that remain shrouded in mystery.

Home to some 375,000 people in the capital and nearby urban areas, it has a thin scattering of entertainments for those living there, including a couple of large malls, a bustling market area and a zoo.

Unconstrained by conventional notions of space, the city feels like an out-of-season theme park, with lonely multi-lane highways linking the colossal parliament complex to other attractions including a vast hotel zone, a glittering pagoda and a collection of white elephants.

While Suu Kyi is afforded her own two-storey home among those of city businessmen, the rest of the NLD’s MPs are housed with other opposition party members in guesthouses costing a government-subsidised 2,000 kyats ($1.6) a day.

The network of squat blocks sitting under the shadow of parliament are served by a row of identical minivans that ferry people to and from the legislature while a sentry box guards the entrance.

Win Htein, the NLD's spokesman in Naypyidaw, described the housing as a “barracks”.

"The kind they put cadets in -- military accommodation -- although it's not a boot camp," said the 74-year-old as a constant stream of visitors crowded his living quarters.

But he acknowledges the camaraderie of living close together, as a group of party colleagues outside used the last of the evening light to kick around a traditional “chinlone” rattan ball, while some senior NLD figures chatted over tea at a small restaurant nearby.

But they did not linger long -- in December local authorities banned political discussions in the compound and it is thought to be a favourite spot for special branch agents.

Military MPs, who make up a quarter of the legislature, are equally unimpressed with their housing.

“We do not even have a shop in our compound and have to drive more than 30 minutes to have a cup of tea with friends," one army MP told AFP, on condition of anonymity.

Across town, the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) MPs have a much better deal, cloistered within the walls of their enormous party headquarters.

“USDP housing is better than others. There is air-conditioning, fibre optic Internet and big spacious rooms. And it’s free,” said Shwe Maung, a lawmaker from the party.

The 331 USDP MPs currently dwarf the NLD’s contingent of 45 lawmakers, who mostly entered the legislature after 2012 by-elections which saw Suu Kyi elected for the first time.

But those numbers look set for a dramatic reversal with the November 8 polls, which are likely to send a wave of new NLD MPs into parliament.

As Myanmar's political landscape prepares for its biggest upheaval in decades the government is also mulling new plans to construct dedicated housing for its lawmakers.

Veteran politicians Ohn Kyaing and Win Htein hope their housing troubles will soon become a distant memory as they ready to leave their humble digs, and seats, and hand the baton over to a new generation of MPs.