Yangon MPs Fear ‘No Lively Debate’ on Govt Spending as Access to Auditor General’s Report Uncertain

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 17 October 2019

YANGON—In August and September last year, Yangon Parliament lawmakers were kept busy after they got their copy of the auditor general’s report on the city government’s spending for fiscal 2016-17. They combed through the several hundred pages of the two-volume report to make sure the regional government had used the public money properly. When they spotted some irregularities, they noted them down and took them to the parliament.

Then, in early October 2018, the chamber of the Yangon Parliament echoed with the MPs’ discussions of the government’s expenditure. They gave cabinet members sitting in the front seats of the chamber a hard time, bombarding them with questions about why the government lost US$2.3 million (3.5 billion kyats) on the city bus service, which was invested with public funds, or why it borrowed 13.5 billion kyats from two private banks for school buses without the parliament’s knowledge. To the government’s embarrassment, a lawmaker even said the Yangon government had abused its power by investing 10 billion kyats in a controversial new city project without the parliament’s approval.

The heated debates—a sign of the active checks and balances between the executive and the legislature—were possible at the time because the MPs got the report copy in advance and painstakingly reviewed the findings before they took to the parliament floor.

But, it seems that is no longer the case.

In an unprecedented move, the Yangon government chief minister and the regional House Speaker in September assigned the parliament’s Public Account Committee to review the auditor general’s report for fiscal 2017-18, rather than delivering copies to every lawmaker for their prior review, as was the case before. The committee will have to report its findings back to the parliament.

As the current Yangon government took office in 2016, the auditor general’s report for fiscal 2017-18 will be an assessment of the two-year-old U Phyo Min Thein administration’s public funds management.

U Tint Lwin, the head of the Public Account Committee, told The Irrawaddy that lawmakers in the past had reviewed and directly discussed the report in the parliament. He explained that his committee’s assignment this year however was to follow the procedure of Myanmar’s Lower House, where the House’s Public Account Committee is responsible for reviewing the Union auditor general’s report and submitting the findings to the parliament.

“This year, following the Yangon government and the regional House speaker’s agreement, they assigned us to follow the Lower House’s procedure, rather than letting other MPs review it somehow,” he said.

This prompted questions from the lawmakers regarding the city government’s transparency: Why did they no longer have access to the report as they did before, and why now—more than one year from the end of this parliament’s five-year term? They also feared that, without prior study of the auditor general’s report, the move could leave them unprepared to question the government about its spending, as they did in previous years.

“We would only know what the Public Account Committee will report,” said U Kyaw Zey Ya, a lawmaker from the ruling National League for Democracy, worrying that the committee’s review could thoroughly cover irregularities in government spending, as other lawmakers will have to discuss it based on the contents of the committee’s findings. He also wondered aloud if the alleged ban on prior review of the auditor general’s report was the result of their fiery debate on the fiscal 2016-17 report.  

“[If so], it shows a lack of transparency and that democratic norms are on the wane,” he said.

The Irrawaddy has learned that the Yangon Auditor General’s Office sent its fiscal 2017-18 report to Chief Minister U Phyo Min Thein and Regional Parliament Speaker U Tin Maung Tun in early July.

The report arrived at the regional parliament’s Public Account Committee one month later, according to U Tint Lwin, the committee president.

When The Irrawaddy contacted Yangon Parliament Speaker U Tin Maung Tun on Wednesday to learn the reason for the alleged ban and the new procedure, he didn’t take questions and hung up. Further calls went unanswered.

According to Section 25(d) of the Union Auditor General Law updated in 2018, a regional auditor general must submit the report to the chief minister of the region or state and to the region or state Hluttaw (parliament) simultaneously.

Another NLD lawmaker, U Nay Phone Latt, told The Irrawaddy that “submitting to the parliament” doesn’t mean just submitting to the speaker, because each MP is part of the parliament.

“It’s the Speaker’s responsibility if he fails to forward the report to us despite his receipt of it. We need to do our job,” he said.

He added that lawmakers could only provide checks and balances for the government to prevent it from wasting public money when it knew how the government had spent it.

“To make that possible, access to the auditor general’s report is important,” he said.

Yangon Parliament Public Account Committee president U Tint Lwin said the committee is now halfway through reviewing the report and hoped to submit its findings and recommendations to the parliament in November. He also acknowledged that his committee now has more responsibility due to the new procedure, while ensuring that the report would include relevant government ministries’ responses to the findings.

“It’s a huge task for us. But we are trying to do as comprehensive a job as possible,” he said.

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