A Bitter Budget Battle in Rakhine State Drags On

By Moe Myint 21 March 2018

YANGON — “The game is not over yet,” U Min Aung told The Irrawaddy of the political power struggle between lawmakers and cabinet members in Rakhine State following his termination as the region’s minister of municipal affairs in January.

U Min Aung, who was appointed by the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) and frequently appeared alongside fellow NLD appointee U Nyi Pu, the state’s chief minister, had submitted a state budget plan for the 2018-19 fiscal year to the local Parliament in December without consulting lawmakers.

The Arakan National Party (ANP), which dominates the state legislature, complained that the minister had violated Article 251 of the Constitution, which states that local parliaments must approve budget plans before projects are implemented. But by then the municipal affairs minister had already announced successful bids for the construction of new markets in Gwa, Tungup, and Kyauktaw townships at an estimated cost of about 1.5 billion kyats ($1.1 million) each.

Nearly two-thirds of the state’s lawmakers lodged a motion with the house speaker to have the minister impeached. The speaker set up a five-member team to investigate the complaint, and by Jan. 18 U Min Aung was officially terminated.

But as U Min Aung had predicted over the months that followed, the budget debate re-emerged when U Nyi Pu re-submitted the terminated minister’s draft budget at a meeting between lawmakers and state cabinet members on Monday.

Negotiating Budget Allocations

Three months ago, the cabinet brought its 75 billion kyats draft budget to Parliament. Because Myanmar’s fiscal year was shifted in 2017 from April-May to September-October, the state was preparing a transitional budget to cover April-September.

The draft allocates 20 billion kyats to the ministries and most of the rest to development projects in the state’s 17 townships. But Deputy Speaker U Mya Than said the constituencies of the speaker and ministers appeared to have gotten larger slices of the budget than others, in particular Tungup, Gwa, Ramree, Kyauktaw and Sittwe.

State lawmakers urged the cabinet to reconsider its draft in order to prevent mismanagement and to prepare a budget that actually serves the public’s needs, noting that some of the projects appeared twice.

“The draft budget was created by the government departments, not by themselves [cabinet members], and some [projects] are not actually needed on the ground. So the cabinet members and MPs had [agreed to change] about one-third of the budget”, said independent lawmaker U Than Maung Oo, Ramree.

In February the union government okayed the draft budget and sent it back to the state for its final approval. But ANP lawmakers still don’t know for sure if the union government sent back the version they rejected or the one they eventually renegotiated. In either case, when lawmakers met the cabinet on Monday, Chief Minister U Nyi Py presented them with the old version they had rejected, before it was renegotiated.

Lawmakers, relevant department officers and cabinet members then set about renegotiating allocations to the 17 townships once again. However, U Nyi Pu abruptly rejected every single change and the meeting ended without an agreement, said U Than Maung Oo, who live-streamed the heated debate on Facebook.

In the video, Speaker U San Kyaw Hla asks both sides to prioritize the public interest over their egos. Another lawmakers can be seen standing up and telling U Nyi Pu: “This is a public budget, not a state government-owned budget.”

“He [U Nyi Pu] told us that they will never change their stance whatever Parliament decides”, U Than Maung Oo said.

Lawmaker U Phoe San, Kyaukphyu, who also joined the meeting, recalled that U Nyi Pu walked out of the meeting after refusing to keep negotiating and insisting that the cabinet would push ahead with its budget plan.

“It seems he will not accept anything less than their draft budget. We can’t let that happen,” U Phoe San said.

An artist’s rendition of the Tungup market. / U Nyi Pu / Facebook

Why Lawmakers Oppose the Budget

U Than Maung Oo said the government’s mismanagement was easy to see in Ramree. While downtown still lacks paved roads, he said, the draft budget includes 400 million kyats for a retaining wall along a little-used road the government built last year to block landslides.

“There are plenty of potholed roads in downtown Ramree. They should fix those first before building a retaining wall,” he said.

U Than Maung Oo said the government has already spent a lot of money building embankments across Rakhine that have been destroyed by the sea tides.

“They can’t prevent natural disasters, so instead of using that money in those places we would prefer that it be used for the public,” he said.

At Monday’s meeting, U Min Aung — who now represents Tungup (2) in the state legislature — said that developers have already built a foundation for the new Tungup market. Lawmakers asked the cabinet to at least reduce the size of the draft budget if the state was going to go ahead with the markets, but they said the chief minister refused.

Making Cuts

U Than Maung Oo said that if Parliament votes down the draft budget, residents and contractors alike could suffer from stalled projects.

“If the Rakhine Parliament rejects the budget plan, they have to send it again to the union government. It will be delayed until next year, and then businesspeople would be in trouble,” he said.

U Mya Than, the deputy speaker, said lawmakers were in the process of reviewing the draft budget to see whether it ignores all their suggestions and whether any of the projects show up in the union budget as well. He said they were flagging projects that appear in both in hopes of having them cut from the state budget.

“We have an estimated 7 billion kyats to deduct from the draft,” he said.

And although most lawmakers would prefer to drop all the market projects, the one in Tungup at least was likely to go forward as 500 million kyats has already been spent on it foundation, paid for with surplus funds from the previous fiscal year.

U Mya Than said a financial official suggested setting up a surplus fund separate from the transition budget, to be spent on parts of Rakhine that need it most. But he noted that the suggestion had not been settled on and would be debated at an upcoming session of Parliament next month.

While lawmakers still hope to trim the draft budget, U Min Aung said he was standing by the chief minister. He said once the union government approves a draft, it can’t be cut.

“I will object if there are deductions, decreases and denials in the union government-approved budget,” he said.