Lawmakers in Burma’s Union Parliament unexpectedly and unanimously approved a salary hike for themselves and civil servants for the next fiscal year at a legislative session on Wednesday, after a ruling party parliamentarian proposed the increases in an emergency motion.
Besides the salary increases for civil servants, lawmakers and government pensioners at all levels of government, parliamentarians also agreed to adopt minimum wage bylaws and measures to protect farmers in anticipation of potential inflationary impacts due to the wage rise.
The opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party supported the motion, but only after party chairwoman Aung San Suu Kyi unsuccessfully attempted to limit the proposal to civil servants’ pay, according to Min Thu, an NLD lawmaker from Naypyidaw’s Oattarathiri Township constituency. The opposition leader pushed for scrapping the raises for lawmakers, and said the farmers’ protections and minimum wage should be discussed separately, he said.
Union House Speaker Shwe Mann rejected the NLD leader’s suggestion to separate the issues, and the proposal ultimately passed unanimously.
“We think it is not the right time yet to raise the issue of increased stipends for parliamentarians,” Min Thu told The Irrawaddy on Thursday, saying that it sent the wrong message at a time when many people in Burma continue to live in poverty.
Each Union lawmaker is currently paid 3 million kyats (US$3,000) per month, while the house speakers each receive 3.5 million kyats.
Shwe Mann and his ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) have raised salaries for civil servants and lawmakers at least three times since the reformist government took office in 2011. The last two have increased salaries by 20,000 kyats and 30,000 kyats per month, in 2012 and 2014, respectively.
The salaries of civil servants, which includes police and military personnel, can be up to 30 times less than what a government minister or parliamentarian earns. Government employees and departmental heads earn from 100,000 kyats to 260,000 kyats per month, while ministers are paid up to 2.5 million per month. The vice presidents receive 4 million kyats each and the president earns 5 million kyats.
Lawmakers this week said underpaid civil servants was a main driver of corruption in Burma.
With past salary increases, commodity price hikes have followed, with critics saying benefits have been at best negligible for civil servants, and a burden on the Burmese people. Ye Htun, an ethnic Shan lawmaker from the Shan Nationalities Development Party, told The Irrawaddy that he thought commodity prices could be controlled as long as the foreign exchange rate is stable.
Ye Htun said prospects for the pay increases to take effect in the 2015-16 fiscal year beginning next April were good, given that “the government and the Parliament this year share a common interest in raising salaries.”
He added that a political calculus would aid proponents of the plan.
“The dream for higher salaries will be realized before the 2015 election, because there is a political gain for the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party as they could win votes from Burma’s 1 million to 1.5 million civil servants,” Ye Htun said.
The proposal was not listed on the agenda for Wednesday’s session, but was raised as an urgent issue by Zaw Myint Pe, a USDP lawmaker representing a constituency in Mandalay, who said he raised the issue to address the “desperate need” of underpaid civil servants.
Ministries involved in the budget, such as the Finance and the National Planning ministries, will next put forward a proposal on how much to increase the salaries, which lawmakers must again approve.
Min Thu, the NLD lawmaker, on Thursday reiterated the party line regarding separation of the wage increases from the minimum wage and farmers’ protections.
“There are no specific laws, or bylaws set yet for the protection of the rights of farmers who have lost their lands,” he said, “therefore, these issues ought to go under separate categories.”