Ethnic Ministers Irrelevant Without More Funding, Power, Say Incumbents

By Moe Myint 22 December 2015

RANGOON — Outgoing ethnic affairs ministers say the next government of Burma should hasten plans to establish a dedicated ethnic ministry when it takes office next year, claiming that their ability to carry out their mandate has been hampered by a lack of responsibilities and resources.

Section 161 of Burma’s military-drafted 2008 Constitution gives state and divisional legislatures additional lawmakers to represent ethnic minorities, if an ethnic group comprises 0.1 percent or more of the national population within that state or division. In Rangoon, for instance, the division’s sizeable Karen and Arakanese communities are both able to vote for ethnic affairs ministers to represent them in the divisional parliament.

There are a total of 29 ethnic affairs ministers elected to positions across 13 of Burma’s 14 regional parliaments—Chin State does not have an ethnic minority group sizeable enough to qualify for special representation. Those elected to the position sit in parliament and exercise the same voting rights as other lawmakers, and are not official members of regional cabinets.

Though they are ostensibly allocated parliamentary seats to represent the interests of their ethnic community, Burma’s highly centralized Constitution puts their activities and budget at the discretion of regional chief ministers, whose own powers are in turn almost entirely dependent on the delegation of authority and funding from the Union government in Naypyidaw.

As the first government to operate under the 2008 Constitution nears the end of its term, ethnic affairs ministers say that they have been hamstrung by a lack of cooperation with government departments and a refusal by regional governments to allocate them funds. Several have complained that their constituents ridicule them as nothing more than “opening ceremony attendees”, who exist only to help regional governments burnish their credentials among ethnic minorities.

Khin Pyone Yi, who was elected to the Kachin Parliament in 2010 to represent that state’s Shan community, said that the government had not supported any of her efforts to assist internal refugees fleeing the renewed conflict between the government and the Kachin Independence Army, which began again after the collapse of a 17-year ceasefire in 2011 and has since displaced more than 100,000 people. She told The Irrawaddy that she had resorted to spending her own money to donate food, clothes and cash to war victims at a number of Kachin refugee camps.

“I only got given an office this year. I haven’t even got a place to live,” said the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) lawmaker, who lost her seat to a rival candidate from the National League for Democracy (NLD) in the Nov. 8 election.

The Ethnic Rights Protection Law, enacted in February, provides for the establishment of a Union-level Ministry of Ethnic Affairs, along with an elaboration of constitutional guarantees for the rights of ethnic communities to study their native language and practice longstanding cultural traditions. When the law comes into effect next year, the creation of the ministry will be the responsibility of the next government, which will be formed by the NLD at the end of March after that party’s comprehensive election victory.

The NLD campaigned on a platform which called for a drastic reorganization of Burma’s creaking bureaucracy, including a reduction in the overall number of ministries. Khin Phone Yi said the lack of support given to ethnic affairs ministers needed to be urgently addressed, beginning with the planned creation of the new Union ministry.
Her comments were supported by Aung Kyaw Thein, the outgoing USDP ethnic affairs minister for Mon State’s Karen community. He said that the creation of a new ministry would give the financial and administrative support for ethnic affairs ministers to represent their communities effectively, rather than relying on the generosity of chief ministers.

Speaking to The Irrawaddy, Aung Kyaw Thein said that ethnic ministers were barred from attending cabinet meetings if not invited beforehand, frustrating his attempts to present reports to the state government which detailed social, educational and health problems among Mon’s Karen people.
“We don’t have our own budget to work for ethnic people, so often we are incapable of solving problems if there is no budget shared by the cabinet,” he said. “None of the three ethnic ministers in the Mon State government had offices until recently, when the government set up a room for us. I asked other ministers in other states and they have even less than us.”

The NLD won 21 of the 29 ethnic affairs minister posts in the November election, performing strongly in ethnic areas after committing to national reconciliation, the protection of ethnic rights and a negotiated end to Burma’s decades-old ethnic conflict. As successful candidates prepare to take their seats at the end of January, however, the NLD’s incoming ethnic affairs ministers have been reluctant to discuss their plans for their new roles and what specific policy developments they wanted to see.

Tin Saw, who will represent Irrawaddy Division’s Arakanese community, was one of five elected ethnic affairs ministers from the NLD to be recently contacted by The Irrawaddy. He said that he supported the establishment of a Ministry of Ethnic Affairs next year, hastening to add that national reconciliation and ethnic affairs were the party’s first priorities. Asked what specific ethnic issue would be first on the party’s agenda, his response mirrored that of his four counterparts:

“I will follow the decision of the central executive committee. At the moment, I don’t know what the plan will be,” he said.