Burma’s Former Generals Retain Grip Over State Govts

By Reform, Samantha Michaels 19 September 2013

RANGOON — Burma’s former military regime allowed state and divisional governments to form shortly before ceding power to a quasi-civilian government, but two years into reformist President Thein Sein’s term, decentralization remains a major challenge, state lawmakers and officials say.

The country’s state and divisional governing bodies, which were created under the 2008 Constitution, have opened up the political sphere in Burma, which was ruled by military dictators for nearly five decades before Thein Sein came to power in 2011. But despite a number of political and economic reforms, lawmakers and officials in states and divisions say they face significant challenges.

“Because of the Constitution, the central government has all the power,” said Aung Naing Oo, a lawmaker in the Mon State Parliament.

Earlier this month The Asia Foundation detailed some of the challenges of decentralization in an extensive report about Burma’s state and divisional governments. The 98-page report—a joint project with the Myanmar Development Resource Institute, an independent research institute—followed nine months of interviews and group discussions at the state and divisional levels with ministers and officials, lawmakers, political party leaders, civil society organizations, educational institutions and private sector actors.

The study found that “the 2008 Constitution and related instruments only partially devolve a limited set of decision-making powers and administrative functions” to lower level governments, “while retaining heavy elements of central and military control and oversight.”

“The executive at state and region [divisional] level is dominated by a top-down appointment process, and ministers have little control over the administrative apparatus, limiting the effectiveness of the new governments,” the researchers wrote, adding that partially elected state legislatures faced capacity constraints while state and divisional budgets remained small.

According to the 2008 Constitution, the chief executive of a state or division—known as the chief minister—is chosen by the president from members of state and divisional legislatures.

In each state and division, the legislature includes two elected members from each township, a limited number of lawmakers representing ethnic minorities, and military-appointed representatives who are reserved 25 percent of seats, the same proportion of seats guaranteed to them in the national Parliament.

The chief minister selects his cabinet members from among the legislature, and these ministers are assigned portfolios by the president, according to the report. Administrative offices in states and divisions are also formed by the General Administration Department (GAD) under the Ministry of Home Affairs in Naypyidaw.

“The formation of state and region governments is a major development. However, a centralized executive appointment process limits the political autonomy of these new governments,” the report said. “Chief Ministers participate in the state/region hluttaw [legislature], but they are accountable ultimately to the President, not to their assemblies.”

Before becoming president, Thein Sein was a high-ranking general and prime minister under the former junta, though he has since become known as a reformer after releasing several hundred political prisoners, easing media censorship, opening the economy to foreign investment and allowing opposition parties to enter Parliament.

Burma has seven states and seven divisions, with six self-administered zones or divisions and one territory containing the capital, Naypyidaw. States and divisions are comprised of districts, whose administrations are headed by a senior GAD official. Districts are made up of townships—generally the lowest level of government—which are also headed by a GAD official.

Meanwhile, state and divisional legislatures have been hampered by a limited scope of authority and consequently remain relatively inactive, The Asia Foundation said in the report.

According to the Constitution, these legislatures—along with state and divisional governments—do not have authority over important areas including education policy, health care, oversight of development projects and the management of mining concessions, an especially contentious issue in resource-rich border regions, where ethnic conflicts have played out for decades.

“Education, health care and development projects are not in control of state governments,” Arakan State lawmaker Aung Mya Kyaw of the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP) told The Irrawaddy this week. “Managing natural resources—the state-division level cannot do that. It’s all centralized control by the national government.”

“State and division parliaments have no authority,” he added. “They just draw minor laws—they can draw laws to manage the roads better, for example.”

Aung Naing Oo, the Mon State lawmaker, agreed. “Two and a half years have passed, but we have not really been able to draft our own state laws yet,” he said, giving the example of a forestry law. “The state government does not have authority to make decisions about growing and cutting down trees—the central government has the authority to decide.”

He called for more control at the state level over development projects. “We have a local development project department, but the central government has a similar department, the Border Areas Development Ministry, and it controls the building of roads and bridges for border area development,” he said.

The 2008 Constitution was drafted by the former junta and passed in a referendum that was widely regarded as fraudulent. While the regime promoted the document as a step toward democracy, critics have described it as a continuation of military control.

In July, Burma’s national Parliament established a 109-member committee to review the Constitution and consider changes that might give states and divisions more power. Ethnic minorities are pushing for a federal system, after decades of fighting against the national government for greater autonomy. Calls for federalism have also recently gained backing from Union Parliament Speaker Shwe Mann, a powerful figure who was once the third-ranking general in the former junta.

Last month the national Parliament also passed a new law governing state and division parliaments. The Region or State Hluttaw Law replaced a 2010 law and introduced potentially significant changes, The Asia Foundation report said, including permitting state legislature offices that are not necessarily GAD-controlled, allowing for public attendance at legislature sessions, and proposing that representatives should have constituency funds and independent representative offices.

Additional reporting by Lawi Weng.