RANGOON — Burma’s civilian-led government recently marked five months since the transfer of power from the country’s previous, military-backed administration.
The Irrawaddy explored the ongoing challenges facing regional parliamentarians in the new system by surveying six National League for Democracy (NLD) lawmakers from Pegu, Irrawaddy and Rangoon division parliaments, and six representatives from parliaments in ethnic states, including those serving in the Arakan National Party (ANP), the Kachin State Democracy Party (KSDP), the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) and the once-ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).
In interviews, parliamentarians discussed and reflected on the first official 100 days in their divisional legislatures, a period which ended in August.
Regional lawmakers revealed a struggle surrounding limited transparency and a sense of helplessness they attribute to continued centralization in the country’s young government.
Lawmakers decry lack of transparency from Arakan State government
On Aug. 22, at a session of the Arakan State parliament, Khin Maung Htay, an ANP legislator from Ann Constituency (2), submitted a question: do we have the right to know the government’s 100-day plan for our state?
The inquiry was in reference to the period from May 1 until mid-August.
“I have no idea about the government’s 100 day project, so that’s why I’m asking this question,” he said.
Arakan State, like Burma’s other states, has a set of appointed ministers who are largely members of the ruling NLD. Arakan State’s municipal minister, Min Aung of the NLD, simply replied by referring Khin Maung Htay to a government press conference held on July 22 in the state capital of Sittwe, pointing out that many “respected” individuals and civil society representatives had been invited, leaving nothing left to explain in the regional parliament.
“He didn’t say anything about the specifics of the 100-day plan,” Khin Maun Htay said, adding that he assumed the regional government was continuing the development of infrastructure throughout the state—projects started by the previous government—although this could not be confirmed. Budgets were specified by the former administration, and there is concern that the Arakan State government is working through its annual budget at an alarming rate by continuing projects prioritized by previous leadership.
“As a representative of my constituents, I must know the status of ongoing projects. I want the [state government] to explain details in the [state] parliament for all lawmakers.”
The Irrawaddy phoned Min Aung multiple times for comment, but was not able to reach him.
USDP lawmaker Htun Hla Sein, from Maungdaw Township, also said he felt ignored by the government; talking to parliamentarians, he argued, should be viewed in the same way as “talking to the public,” he said.
Another outspoken ANP lawmaker Kyaw Zaw Oo of Sittwe’s Constituency (2) spoke with The Irrawaddy over the phone, and lamented the lack of “effort” made by government ministers to keep MPs up to date with relevant facts and figures. He admitted that he had not heard any updates on budget allocation, and wondered if centralization of government was to blame.
“Many problems are handled by the central body [the Union government], and sometimes I don’t think the Chief Minister can do anything here,” he said.
Kachin, Shan lawmakers highlight regional limitations
Meanwhile, members of the Kachin and Shan state parliaments identify as a key challenge determining whether a legislative issue is of regional or national importance, and the implications of introducing it in the regional or Union-level parliament.
For KSDP parliamentarian Maran Ja Seng Hkawn, representing Kachin State’s Ingyan Constituency (2), the controversial Myitsone dam is planned for construction within her area, at the confluence that forms the Irrawaddy River. Yet if the China-backed hydropower project proceeds, the impact would be felt nationwide.
She described being “censored” after attempting to discuss the dam in the NLD-dominated Kachin State parliament, with the House Speaker reportedly rejecting a debate on the issue, pointing out that the state lacks power to make decisions on such matters due to restrictions laid out in the 2008 Constitution.
Tu Ja, chairman of the KSDP, said, “The centralization is not much different from the previous government.”
Ongoing fighting between government troops and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) has been met with silence from the Kachin State Chief Minister, leading MPs to question his influence and authority in the state; would the Burma Army listen if the Chief Minster ordered a halt to the attacks?
Tu Ja went as far as declaring that “nothing has changed at the state level,” since the shift to a civilian-led government in Naypyidaw, lamenting continued armed conflict in Kachin State. “The state government knows [there is fighting], but they do nothing about it,” he said.
Ja Seng Hkawn recommends that greater authority be granted to the state level, particularly regarding the ability to respond to clashes, but until the military-drafted 2008 Constitution is amended, regional powers will continue to remain limited.
Fighting between ethnic armed groups and the Burma Army has also continued in northern Shan State, even as the 21st Century Panglong peace conference commenced in Naypyidaw on Aug. 31.
Regional MP Nang San San Aye, representing the SNLD in Hsipaw Township, said she is still awaiting a government plan for resettlement and rehabilitation of internally displaced communities in Shan State. The state’s Chief Minister—Linn Htut of the NLD—she said, had not yet addressed the conflict or the displacement. At the very least, she said, the state government could have instructed the Burma Army to halt troop reinforcements in areas of conflict.
Like Kachin State’s Ja Seng Hkawn, Nang San San Aye told The Irrawaddy that every time she brought up concerns about armed conflict in the state parliament, the House Speaker rejected her proposal, deferring such issues to the Union government.
“Armed clashes are not happening at the Union level—they are happening around ethnic Shan communities. Awaiting instructions from the Union level government would not help our people,” she said.
Communication challenges within divisional governments
Rangoon Division lawmakers Myat Min Thu and Daw Khaing Mar Htay also describe being kept in the dark regarding government planning, budgetary matters and construction projects. Despite legislators’ inquiries about definitive timeframes or action plans, the MPs that The Irrawaddy spoke to said that ministers often fail to provide accurate information.
“Some ministers make promises,” said Irrawaddy Division parliamentarian U Khin Win. “But I don’t know whether or not they have done as they said.”
Nyi Nyi Htwe and Thet Win Hlaing, lawmakers from Pegu Division, admitted that they knew little of their government’s plans for the first 100 days in power.
A legislator from the Irrawaddy Division parliament, Khaing Zin Oo, attributed these issues to the newness of the NLD-led government, pointing out that ministers are still learning how to apply and adhere to government procedures.
In order to improve communication and working capacity, the director of the Tanpadipa Institute, Khin Zaw Win, said that regional governments should “explain their projects” to the parliament.
Centralization and a lack of transparency could continue, he warned, if the majority of state and divisional parliaments continue to be dominated by only one party, with mostly NLD lawmakers and appointed NLD ministers.
“I don’t hold out much hope with this government. Their actions involve an ‘information blackout.’ That will not take us in a good direction,” Khin Zaw Win said.
He recommended the development of stronger checks and balances between legislatures and ministers, especially over decision-making. The requirement to wait for instructions from the Union government delays urgent action when it is most needed, he explained, pointing to the lack of power afforded to the divisional government during a recent measles outbreak in the Naga Self-Administered Zone in Sagaing Division.
Moreover, constituents who voted in support of particular parties view a lack of transparency as irresponsible, he said: regional cabinets must release all information relevant to regional lawmakers.
Khin Zaw Win encouraged chief ministers of states and divisions to be aware of the importance of their role.
“They have the power to act, but do not dare to apply that power out of fear of being disqualified [from their post],” he explained. “They are just waiting for orders from the central body.”
Irrawaddy Division MP Khin Win said that it would take time to develop a more efficient working system.
“The country has been torn for several decades. How could that be solved within 100 days?” he said.