Dateline Irrawaddy: ‘We Have to Reform the Entire Administrative System’

By The Irrawaddy 9 July 2016

Kyaw Zwa Moe: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week, we’ll discuss the U Thein Sein government’s motives for reintroducing permanent secretary posts in the ministries, appointing their men to these posts, and whether the appointments were designed to restrict or cause trouble for the National League for Democracy (NLD) government elected by the people. Former Information Minister and sole presidential spokesperson for the previous government U Ye Htut and political commentator Dr. Yan Myo Thein will join me for the discussion. I’m Irrawaddy English editor Kyaw Zwa Moe.

U Ye Htut, President U Thein Sein articulated the idea of permanent secretaries in 2014, and made appointments in 2015. Many permanent secretaries were appointed throughout 36 ministries, and most of them were government officials, former colonels, deputy colonels and majors. This retained the parachute policy [when high-ranking military officers were dropped in from above to preside over ministries and other administrative departments] first adopted by dictator U Ne Win in 1962. From a political point of view, can this be seen as an honest move?

Ye Htut: I deny your allegation. We did that with absolute honesty in the hope of delivering the best outcome for our country. As we initiated reforms—after making reforms in the political and economic sectors—we made studies to undertake administrative reforms. We found that in a democracy, elections will usually be held about every five years and the government will change at least every five to ten years. So, we deemed it necessary to continue the permanent secretary post—which was adopted in the time of Burma Socialist Program Party—to help keep the administrative mechanism going no matter which government or minister is in office. We did not have much time left in office and therefore could not reform the entire administrative system. We could only create the permanent secretary post as a mechanism to help during the transition period.

If you ask me if these appointments are beneficial or not, I would say that it was not the outgoing ministers who took on the primary responsibility of transferring authority [to incoming ministers] during the transfer of power, but the permanent secretaries who took the overall responsibility, by compiling reports and proving explanations to the incoming ministers. We introduced the post with the intention of brining benefits [to the country]. It is fair to say that permanent secretaries played a useful role in the power transfer. As you have said, it is true that most of the permanent secretaries are former military personnel. That is because most of the director-general level senior officials were former military personnel. They were included inevitably.

KZM: We have heard talk that most of the permanent secretaries—I don’t mean all of them, many of them may be cooperative and helpful—act as gatekeepers and do not get on well with the policies of the new ministers. Doesn’t this pose a problem to the new government?

YH: In a ministry, the minister decides the policies. Permanent secretaries and departmental heads implement the ministers’ policies in line with concerned departmental procedures and regulations. This means that if a minister’s policy is against the law, he [the permanent secretary] has to say so; and, if there is a way to make the policy comply with the law, he has to present it. If he refuses to implement the minister’s policy while it is compliant with the law, the minister may report this to the president and dismiss him.

KZM: Ko Yan Myo Thein, what have you heard about this? What is your response to U Ye Htut’s statement?

Yan Myo Thein: There were permanent secretaries in the democratic parliamentary system. But after the coup in 1962, those permanent secretaries were replaced with director-generals. As to the reappointment of permanent secretaries by the previous government, I think it just makes the government bloated. Although they replaced the director-generals, they also led to the creation of new positions such as deputy permanent secretary and assistant secretary. If government expenditure in our country—which is one of the poorest countries in South East Asia—is too high, it will burden the people. There were almost 100 ministers and deputy ministers in U Thein Sein’s government. I think the appointment of permanent secretaries does not suit the current situation. If the new government continues to work within the configuration left by the previous government, changes that will serve the interests of the people are unlikely during next five years.

KZM: But the new government has kept the permanent secretaries. Because the new government is working for national reconciliation on the political front, I guess it intends to keep a political space—or is attempting a political maneuver—by accepting the permanent secretaries appointed by the previous government. If there are people who oppose the policies of the new government, can the new government dismiss them?

YH: The Constitution grants the president the power to appoint and dismiss the heads of government agencies. In response to what U Yan Myo Thein said, I would say that the administrative system was reformed only once. When we gained independence in 1948, we adapted and continued the permanent secretary system, which was a legacy of the British. Afterwards, [U Ne Win] came to power in 1962 and talked about adopting a system that suited the socialist constitution around 1969, and introduced a new administrative system in 1972. Even after 1988, the Socialist Program Party system was modified in practice. We adopted permanent secretary posts with the intention of facilitating the power transfer. We could change the heads but there is no mechanism in which permanent secretaries are trained and promoted through the ranks from deputy township officers, township officers, sub-divisional officers, deputy commissioners and commissioners, like in the past.

My suggestion is that the lower structure be changed when the upper structure is changed. It is another question to consider whether the Socialist Program Party’s policy was right or wrong and a success or failure. But the party systematically studied and adapted an administrative system that was appropriate for the socialist system, even though it failed.  Because we are on a democratic path now, we have to thoroughly study the civil service system and administrative system for a year or two, to see what suits democracy and then make reforms. Otherwise, the upper structure and lower structure will not be able to work together well. It may work to a certain extent, but it won’t work 100 percent. It is not because people are uncooperative and unwilling; they are simply incapable.

KZM: I heard from high-ranking officials in Naypyidaw that while the new ministers do not yet know about their ministries, the permanent secretaries and director-generals are key players there and staff sometimes have to submit to them and follow their instructions. How should the new government quickly change this?

YMT: While the ministers should listen to the voices of the permanent secretaries and director-generals, they also need to gather feedback from officials and others in lower ranks separately. Because we are thinking of making changes, those changes should be innovative and competitive—the kind of changes that could be compared with our neighbors. Ministers should establish that goal and make the necessary preparations. Regarding ex-military officers who are in the civil service, that is a separate consideration. There are many records that show that these appointments have restricted the chance of career progression for civil servants. Ministers need to think about how to prevent such transfers in the future and how to change this.

KZM: If I am not wrong, Ko Myat Nyana Soe from the NLD opposed [in Parliament] when the proposal for the appointment of permanent secretaries was submitted in 2015. They thought these appointments aimed to hinder [the new government]. I heard that permanent secretaries have informal communication and counseling with [former] ministers, although Minister U Ye Htut is not one of them. Although this cannot be called a continuation of the former government’s policies, is it a barrier to the current government?

YH: After we retired, former president U Thein Sein told us to avoid frequent communication with departmental personnel [former colleagues] in the post-transition period no matter how close we were to them, because he was afraid that there might be a misunderstanding like the one you have just mentioned. He said that even though there was no communication [between former ministers and their former colleagues], third parties might say this and that to the ministers. If this makes the ministers doubt that their subordinates will follow their instructions, then there might be strain in vertical relations. I never contact my former colleagues when I am in Naypyidaw. When I have to contact them for my pension, I keep the conversations formal. I avoid interpersonal communication with them. Some [permanent secretaries and senior officials] may have [interpersonal contact with their former ministers] as you have said. If so, the [new] ministers may take action against them. I agree with what Ko Yan Myo Thein said. Ministers need to keep communication channels open. They might not know about their ministries because they have just taken office, and need to open several channels in order to learn about them. If they filter the news from various channels and the media, it could be quite difficult for a permanent secretary to control a minister.

KZM: Since 1962, the military or the Socialist Program Party during the U Ne Win era transferred ex-military officers to senior positions within the ministries, which we call a parachute policy. That system could be called a political legacy and it still has not been changed up until now. That dynamic is still going on. How long will it continue? When should those people be removed?

YH: The caretaker government [of Ne Win] transferred military officers to special officer posts in the civil service. There were 100 of them at first, I think. The policies of the caretaker government were a success at that time. Then, the Revolutionary Council came into power. We can conclude from their speeches in the early days that they thought bureaucracy could be a barrier to a socialist revolution. They started to transfer [military officials to the civil service] to exercise checks and balances on existing civil servants, which they called cadre infiltration. You can’t drive out all existing people now. It will just lead to a more complicated situation. But you can set a standard. You can remove people who do not meet a standard in line with civil service regulations.

We have to reform the entire administrative system to suit the multi-party democratic system we are practicing. If you ask me if we couldn’t do that before—we couldn’t. Our first priority was political reform and then economic reform. Therefore, we focused on those during the first wave of reform. When we initiated administrative reform in the second wave, we could only ease some regulations and reorganize some departments. But we could not change the system for selecting and training civil servants from the lowest levels to the permanent secretary level—previously we called them junior staff and senior staff. We lack a system to turn out senior staff as well as criteria to assess their capacity. I think the new government should systematically study the administrative mechanism and reform the lower level to suit the political system of the upper level.

KZM: U Ye Htut, what would your advice be to permanent secretaries appointed by the previous government to work together with the current government to ensure a smooth democratization process in Burma?

YH: In the final months of our government, we frequently talked about this with our ministry staff. Individually, civil servants can vote for a party they like in a democracy. But collectively as a civil service entity, they are responsible for implementing their minister’s policies to the best of their abilities in line with procedure. We urged civil servants to follow those instructions. I understand that they might be confused by the current separation [of military, government and other institutions] after living in a one-party system and under centralized military control for ages. The newcomers do not have complete trust in the staff and the staff might be worried that they would be scapegoated if something happened. Mainly, I would urge them to work cooperatively with the attitude I have mentioned above. They need to dispel doubt and work cooperatively.  I would suggest that they first build trust and cooperate rather than pointing the blame at each other.

KZM: Thank you for your contributions!