Kyaw Zwa Moe: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week, we’ll discuss to what extent the Yangon government and regional lawmakers have improved the life of residents in Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city, over the past two years, as well as future challenges and how they will be handled in 2018. Yangon regional lawmakers U Kyaw Zeya and Ma Kyi Pyar join me for the discussion. I’m Irrawaddy English editor Kyaw Zwa Moe.
It is fair to say that Yangon has a lot of problems. The population is large. It has almost been a dead town for the past several decades. As far as I’m concerned, today’s Yangon has a lot of problems such as traffic congestion, transportation and municipal laws, recovery of public spaces, capacity of the government, development projects, and so on. What is the most pressing issue that should be handled in 2018?
Kyaw Zeya: The government tried to solve the traffic problem soon after it took office. We raised objection to two flyover projects, respectively at North Okkalapa and Parami, which were initiated by the previous government, because we believed that they would not ease the traffic congestion. A new public transportation system along with a traffic control tower was then introduced. It has been more than one year since then, but the system has barely solved the traffic congestion. In my township, street vendors have faced a lot of difficulty, and it is worse for street vendors in downtown areas like Kyauktada, Lanmadaw and Pabedan. These are only a few of many problems.
KZM: Ma Kyi Pyar, what do you think are the most pressing issues to handle for the interests of the people?
Kyi Pyar: We have worked for the interests of the people over the past two years. But there might have been some weakness in the procedures. The issue that must be handled in 2018 is municipality, because Yangon’s city municipality is responsible for 33 out of 45 townships in the Yangon Region. There is also the Yangon Region municipality. We have two municipal laws. We are going to change the municipal law concerning 33 townships in Parliament. This law is critically important. It will be a milestone for the NLD [National League for Democracy]. If the law is flawed, it will be a milestone marking the poor reputation of the NLD. And if the law serves the interests of the people, it will be the milestone marking its good reputation. There are two parts – even if the law is good, we’ll have to see if the capacity is strong enough to effectively enforce it, and to what extent the public interests will be taken into consideration. If it can serve the interests of the people smoothly, most of the problems facing Yangon will be solved.
KZM: What are those problems?
KP: All the problems in Yangon are related to municipal law. From birth to death, it is all concerned with the municipality. We used to have the feeling when we saw someone in municipal uniform that they would not provide good service. But working with them now, I have noticed that many of them are cooperative. But they are still far from serving the interests of the people. The top leadership is mainly responsible for this, I think.
KZM: What do you mean by the top leadership?
KP: I mean the Yangon mayor and four appointees along with those elected to the Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC). There are more than 20 departments in the YCDC. If they can work well with the heads of those departments and those departments can effectively enforce the law and manage staff at different levels, this will help fight corruption. It is also important that individual officials take initiative. The most important thing is in regards to grease money. We must change the public perception that municipal officials need to be paid to get things done. If this can be changed, this will give the party [NLD] some credit, and also please the people in 2018. So, this is very important.
KZM: U Kyaw Zeya, you are the secretary of Yangon’s finance, planning and economic parliamentary committee. There are high-rise projects and historical and cultural heritage sites that need to be conserved as well as public spaces that need to be reclaimed. Under the previous government, public spaces were confiscated by the government, the Tatmadaw and some private companies close to the government. There were many public spaces rented for business purposes rather than for public recreation. What will be done about that this year?
KZY: There have been delays in amending the municipal act. Previously, Singapore copied the municipal act of Yangon, and I heard that we will now copy the municipal act of Singapore. [Foreign] experts came and asked the YCDC if they wanted to turn Yangon into a cultural heritage town or a real commercial capital. The population of Yangon is expected to increase to 10 million in the future. There is a lot of vacant land in Yangon. They asked the YCDC how they would like to utilize those lands and public spaces and said they would give recommendations based on their ideas. Authorities still can’t answer that question, I think.
KZM: The municipal law is the most important one. But what else can be done before the law is amended?
KP: There are certain things that are being done at the moment. We lawmakers were allowed to ask questions and submit proposals as of the second regular session of the regional Parliament. The first proposals we submitted were about garbage disposal and traffic congestion. The regional government is handling both of these.
Garbage is one of the major problems in Yangon. Lawmakers of all of the six downtown townships signed and submitted a letter to the Yangon mayor about the garbage problem. We also discussed it in Parliament. The Yangon municipality as well as the people and the NLD party are undertaking garbage cleanup campaigns. We lawmakers also cooperate with them to systematize the disposal of garbage.
But as you know, it is difficult to change a habit that is entrenched. Also, the human waste collection system in Yangon has problems. I asked a question about this during a previous session of Parliament. The government said it was trying to change the whole system with the assistance of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). So, these works are in progress, which is good for the people.
But as I’ve said, the government fails to solve the problem of street vendors. I submitted a proposal about it to Parliament. I didn’t mean that they should be removed, but I said authorities should take the time to systematize street vending. Our term is five years, and it may take three years or more. But, my proposal was approved at once and street vendors were moved to the new place immediately. Some of the procedures were quite unsystematic. YCDC, as a government department, will do whatever it is instructed to do by its upper level, and they may not bother to think about how to make adjustments to plans. As I foresaw this, I had had intense debate about it. If you ask me if the plan works, it doesn’t. And I am sorry about the 1.8 billion kyats that were spent to move the vendors of four townships [to the new night market]. I feel bad because it is fair to say this project was not successful.
At the same time, I am thankful for the successful cases. The Yangon mayor and municipal officials mostly fulfill our requests for help. But to initiate projects without long-term plans is just wasting public funds. It is we lawmakers who have to directly engage with people on the ground. Both street vendors and people complain to us about their troubles.
KZM: Ma Kyi Pyar, you are a member of the regional government’s guarantees, pledges and undertakings vetting committee in Parliament. How is the committee monitoring the pledges and guarantees of the regional government regarding these examples? Do you think they can do it? Do they take full responsibility?
KP: Mainly, our committee vets whether the regional government fulfills the lawmakers’ proposals. We found that the government can fulfill most of the proposals because most of them are about building roads and bridges. So, the regional government fulfills them. It simply asks for a budget [from the Union government] for those things and builds them. But I want the government to put more emphasis on policies. Roads are easy to give, and the government just needs to allocate the budget for them.
Our government has three years before its term expires. After three years, there may be a new government. We may remain as lawmakers or there may be new lawmakers. Anyway, if a firm policy is in place, no matter who comes to power, people have nothing to worry about.
Speaking of proposals, let’s talk about public spaces, since that might interest the people. It is important to note that the government has granted permits to use public spaces for other purposes even after the regional Parliament approved a proposal about [maintaining] public spaces. We’ve received a lot of complaints about it. Looking at the dates of the permits, they were issued in 2017, under the NLD government. Permits were issued to use lakes and sportsgrounds for other purposes. Even if we can’t solve the old cases, we should not issue new land grants. We have to handle these complaints.
KZM: Why has that happened?
KP: Our committee members take trips to investigate complaints, and take back some public spaces. It is unacceptable that such things happen to the extent that people file complaints. Another thing is that we still can’t handle permits for 232 land plots, more or less, that were issued during the power transfer. I have asked a question about it in Parliament in order to check their legality. We want to solve this through government-parliament cooperation. But, we still can’t do that.
KZM: By that you mean the government is less responsive?
KP: We lawmakers very much want to change, and I believe they also do. But they have a lot more difficulty than us, and we understand their difficulties. They have to operate within the existing bureaucracy. And in certain cases in which they need to cooperate with the Union government, the minister gives one order, the director, another, and the permanent secretary, a completely different one. However, I’d like to urge the regional government to push through certain things when possible.
KZM: At the NLD’s central executive committee meeting last year, the party’s senior leader U Aung Kyi Nyunt said the NLD was facing three major dangers, and one of them was bribery. He meant that there was a danger of NLD members being bribed by rich and privileged elites, especially businesspeople. He warned of that. Are there links [between government officials and businesspeople] to grant land permits for public spaces?
KP: It is mainly about the land use policy in the municipal laws.
KZY: The Yangon mayor said at Parliament that the Yangon municipality has to consider social relations [regarding land grants]. This speaks for itself. You can draw various conclusions from this remark. If the opposition party draws conclusions from it, it will have even more meanings. In fact, we made a proposal about public spaces and it has been approved by Parliament. But, the government fails to fulfill its pledge.
KZM: How many land use permits were granted?
KP: We’ve mainly received complaints from Thaketa and Mayangone. And we’re handling them. We don’t know about what is happening in other places. We only know the cases when someone files a complaint with us.
KZM: Speaking of U Aung Kyi Nyunt’s remark, he warned NLD party members about the danger of being bribed. He also talked about the haughtiness of some party members. Will you comment on this?
KP: We inevitably have to engage with businesspeople to a certain extent. Most of the country’s money is in the hands of so-called cronies. We need to work together with them as best as we can. Given the current situation in Myanmar, it is impossible to improve the economy without them. Businesspeople tend to see things through their business eyes. So, those holding political posts need to consider this wisely.
The government might have a lot of difficulties and a lot of things to consider. We’ll cooperate with them, and the government should also talk to us about its difficulties. We are close like brothers and sisters. Only when the government and Parliament push together, will we be able to achieve success in most of these areas.
KZM: There must be checks and balances between Parliament and the government, but at the same time, they should support each other. Speaking of national politics, things are not very encouraging. There are conflicts in Rakhine State and clashes in Shan State. Overall, developments are not good. What is your assessment of Yangon politics?
KP: Looking at Yangon alone, it is far from the issues you have mentioned. If you ask Yangon residents, they don’t know much about it. They know a little bit about Rakhine State because there are Rakhine people as well as a high number of Muslims in Yangon. But speaking of the peace process, Yangon is far from the conflict areas, and Yangon’s politics are not as bad as that of those areas.
But then, problems arose as undemocratic things emerged in Yangon’s politics. For example, the ban on protesting in downtown areas has drawn criticism from the media. We should rely on the media as the Fourth Estate of the country. And at the same time, the media should have ethics.
Yangon’s economy is important. If Yangon’s economy collapsed, the national economy might also collapse. Politically, there are not many complications in Yangon. But its politics are largely connected with the economy.
Another thing is that Yangon should set the example of democratic norms for the whole country. Taking a look at the whole country, there is a lot of cause for concerns. But we’re trying as much as we can. We don’t expect the worst scenarios because we are doing the best we can.
KZM: U Kyaw Zeya, how do you assess Yangon’s politics including the Yangon regional government, Parliament, major political parties and businesspeople?
KZY: Grassroots people make up the majority in Yangon. There are better job opportunities in Yangon than other regions and states. So people from other areas including Irrawaddy and Bago regions come to Yangon. Politics is about public affairs. The grassroots people are not that interested in the Rakhine issue. What they are interested in is the squatter problem.
We took the office, stating that we would accommodate the squatters. Our election declaration also adopted a policy to provide decent housing, in consideration of their human dignity for those who don’t have houses because of natural disasters or economic hardship. It is almost two years now, and we still can’t implement this. If we could solve the squatter problem as we have targeted, this would earn credit for both the government and Parliament. I’d like to urge the government to do it.
KZM: How would you envision Yangon city and Yangon Region as the regional lawmakers?
KZY: I’d like to see it as a boomtown without compromising our religious and cultural identity. I have been to Shanghai and Taiwan. They use rivers well. At night, rivers are illuminated with lights and are quite beautiful, and people cruise. We still can’t do that on the Yangon River. We have Shwedagon Pagoda, which is in Phayagyi Ward. There is a square in front of the pagoda.
The Yangon regional government has organized New Year’s Dhamma talks at the square. But then, I saw foreigners drinking beer and gazing at the Dhamma talks from the restaurants in the adjacent area of the square. I feel bitter about it. I have talked about it in Parliament. This is the cost of development. I told the government that though [foreign-imported] liquor is banned in Yangon, you can buy wine or liquor or anything else. I don’t want our cultural identity to be compromised.
KP: I would like to keep Yangon as the commercial hub. But Yangon has a lot of things of great historical value, so it is also important to maintain it from that perspective. For example, there are a lot of historic places in Kyauktada and Pabedan. Those must be conserved. We would like to welcome new satellite town projects but there must be transparency. Those projects must provide job opportunities for residents. Yangon Region needs big activity that can result in an economic boom. This is also connected with the national economy of Myanmar.
We want Yangon to be expanded in a transparent manner in the interests of the people. Another important thing is Yangon residents should be able to earn their livelihoods with peace of mind. I don’t mean everybody should be well off. But, they should all be free from hassle in earning their livelihoods. For example, street vendors should have places to sell conveniently and do good business. For taxi and bus drivers, I no longer want to hear them complaining about traffic congestion. Even if Yangon can’t become very rich, I really want to see people leading a fairly easy life in Yangon.
KZM: Ma Kyi Pyar, U Kyaw Zeya, thank you for your contributions.