Public Lacks Understanding of Gov’t Finances, Groups Say

By Nyein Nyein 12 March 2018

CHIANG MAI, Thailand – The Myanmar public needs to be better educated about budget information, civil society organizations said, as such information plays a key role in their advocacy, development and humanitarian support work.

As part of this awareness campaign, the national development organization Local Resource Centre (LRC) and the international development organization Asia Foundation co-organized the State Budget Transparency Forum in Naypyitaw on March 10-11.

The forum was aimed at informing CSO workers, lawmakers and public servants about the need to increase budget transparency, boosting their knowledge of public financial management and strengthening cooperation among the various states and regions of Myanmar, the two groups said in a press release.

“The Public Accounts Committee also shared its view, developed at discussion forums we have held since last year, that state and regional lawmakers should work with CSOs to ensure transparency in budgeting,” said U Nyi Nyi Aung, the LRC’s programme director.

In recent years, Myanmar’s reforms to improve fiscal transparency have led to the establishment of new institutions such as the Public Accounts Committee and the Treasury Department at the Union level, as well as new practices such as the publication of citizens’ budgets at the state and regional levels and dissemination of the Union Budget Law on the Ministry of Finance website.

The Asia Foundation and the LRC have conducted a series of budget transparency forums at the state and regional levels since 2017. The first was held in Yangon in December of that year; over 50 people from CSOs in Bago and Magwe regions and Rakhine and Kayah states participated. They discussed the roles of CSOs in public finance management, ways to improve budget transparency and issues related to gender and disability.

In January, the second and third forums were conducted in Mandalay and Mawlamyine. In Mandalay, CSOs from Sagaing region, Shan, Chin and Kachin states participated, while the Mawlamyine event drew CSOs from Yangon and Tanintharyi regions and Mon and Karen states.

U Nyi Nyi Aung said the forums had raised the “awareness of the participants, including regional lawmakers and civil society representatives, about how to access the budget and about existing laws. It also made the CSOs aware of the process, and how to take part.”

He said the goal is for the public and the CSOs to become conscious that “civic participation is the key to monitoring any abuses in the budget expenditures, so that we can help to decrease corruption and ensure the accountability of the government.”

As the state budget is now based on taxation — despite tax receipts still being relatively rare — the public is becoming more interested in getting budget information, U Nyi Nyi Aung said.

“But there is so much more that needs to be done, because some state and regional governments have not been able to release citizens’ budgets, while a few others [states/regions] have,” he said. “The parliamentarians told us that the long process and time limitations are some of the challenges they are facing.”

On Sunday, the forum saw the launch of two research reports: “Attitudes Towards Taxation in Myanmar: Insights from Urban Citizens” and “Budget Monitoring and Oversight System in Myanmar” by the Asia Foundation.

“Attitudes Towards Taxation in Myanmar” was based on the City Life Survey conducted in five urban areas in Yangon, Paan in Karen state and Taunggyi in Shan State in 2017. It found that people are “not strongly anti-tax” and that urban people, who are generally more knowledgeable than rural populations, consider paying income, commercial and property taxes as fair.

However, “Urban residents prefer a progressive tax system whereby the rich pay more of their income as tax than the poor,” according to a summary of the study’s findings. “At the same time, Myanmar’s urban citizens have a poor understanding of the tax system,” it adds.