Decentralization in Myanmar: a nascent and evolving process.

AuthorNinh, Kim N.B.
  1. Introduction

    As part of a roadmap to "discipline-flourishing democracy" announced by the military government in 2003, a new constitution was drafted and approved through a public referendum in 2008. Widely viewed as a constitution designed to maintain the central role of the military in state affairs, it nevertheless introduced significant new structures in sub-national governance. Fourteen state and region governments were mandated and some division of power between levels of administration was created. This was a historic shift from a highly centralized military dictatorship. After assuming power in April 2011, the Thein Sein government increasingly emphasized decentralization and improvement in local governance while engaging in ceasefire discussions with the numerous ethnic armed groups. Until recently, the term "federalism" was still viewed as a highly sensitive term synonymous with the disintegration of the state. It has become part of the ongoing peace process, with Myanmar's military publicly acknowledging that the country's future lies in some form of federalism. Meanwhile, the newly formed state and region governments are becoming more active in defining their own policies for sub-national governance.

    Despite these developments, Myanmar remains a highly centralized country. Its system of governance is perhaps best understood as a "federal-like" polity. The creation of new sub-national governments are constitutionally mandated, but their powers are greatly circumscribed. The 2008 Constitution stipulates that 25 per cent of both the national parliament and the state/region assemblies are reserved for members of the military, who are under the control of the commander-in-chief of the Defence Services. While the sub-national governments now have appointed chief ministers and elected assemblies, public finances and administration remain primarily in the hands of national-level agencies.

    This structural framework for decentralization and local governance began in 2011, although the Constitution was approved in 2008. The transition from military to quasi-civilian rule dominated by the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) occurred between 2011 and 2016. For the first time, new sub-national institutions had to figure out their roles, responsibilities and boundaries. In November 2015, the extraordinary electoral sweep by the National League for Democracy (NLD) under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi has given both government and parliamentary institutions a more democratic cast. How the new government will take up issues related to decentralization and federalism remains to be seen, but it is important to underscore the fact that this paper documents and analyses a political process that is very nascent in a context of rapid socio-political change and protracted armed ethnic conflicts. Nevertheless, as the space for greater local participation has opened up through the democratisation process and ethnic groups' demand for a federal union is increasingly accepted in the ongoing peace negotiations, the scope and depth of further decentralization will be a key element in the political discourse for the years ahead.

  2. A Brief History of Decentralization in Myanmar

    Myanmar's modern history has been defined by highly centralized military authoritarianism. Following a military coup in 1962, the country's basic administration increasingly concentrated inside Union (central) ministries led by generals, with local administration done through assorted local councils led by military commanders. Burma has had centralized rule given its history as a series of empires, but the country in its present geographic form did not exist until British imperial expansion consolidated the current boundaries.

    Basic administration in "Burma proper" relied upon a hierarchy of administrators overseeing territorial units extending from the centre to local levels, in what could be considered a "graded territorial system" (Furnivall 1960, p. 7). These were routine under the kingdoms of Burma. (1) A central-level administrative system started as early as the Pagan Period, and the first recognized hluttaw, a council of ministers, was formed during the reign of King Htilominlo (1210-34) (Daw My a Sein 1973, p. 5). The monarch exercised absolute power through "certain ministers and councils and administrative departments" (Daw Mya Sein 1973, p. 17). Ministers, known as wungyi, oversaw a series of departments responsible for different administration requirements. It included a range of ministries such as defence, judiciary and home affairs, revenue and finance, farmland and agriculture, public service, transportation and foreign affairs (U Ba U 2011, p. 197). At the local level, the Myo Wun was an important local public administrator in pre-British Burma. This person was tasked by the central government to administer the township as its governor.

    Under colonial rule, which was exerted across the current territory of Myanmar by 1885, the British had administered the country directly in majority Bamar areas but had generally used indirect rule to administer areas with ethnic minorities. These divisions still existed in the new state. As with many other post-colonial states, issues of federalism and decentralization were central to national political discourses after independence. In Burma, there were many calls for a federal system to account for the country's ethnic diversity. These calls soon manifested in multiple ethnic insurgencies seeking outright secession or at least federalism for ethnically-defined states. Compounding the situation was a communist insurgency that continued through the late 1980s.

    The Myanmar military (tatmadaw) was never able to decisively defeat the assorted ethnic insurgent groups, nor were any of the groups ever able to achieve their early goals of secession. What eventually came to be a norm were numerous ceasefires between the tatmadaw and individual insurgent groups, but no national peace process was in place. Following the beginning of the country's transition to reform in April 2011, however, President Thein Sein initiated a process that led to the signing of a National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) in October 2015 with eight out of the eighteen major ethnic armed groups. It is hoped that during the coming years, a "political dialogue" will allow the ethnic armed groups and the Myanmar government to agree to a final peace agreement. No ethnic armed groups presently claim secessionist goals but instead demand a federal union. What this exactly means is hence at the crux of the country's peace process and of critical importance to the wider transition to better governance.

  3. Current Status of Sub-national-Central Relations

    The Republic of the Union of Myanmar comprises seven states and seven regions named in the 2008 Constitution; six self-administered zones or divisions; and one union territory for the capital Nay Pyi Taw. (2) States and regions, despite the terminology distinguishing historically "ethnic" states from majority Bamar regions, are constitutionally equivalent. It can also be misleading since Myanmar's ethnic map is complex, and all states and regions contain numerous ethnic groups. Self-administered zones and the self-administered division of Wa have a constitutional status in many ways equivalent to a region or state, and can form their own indirectly elected and appointed "leading bodies" led by a chairperson (Constitution 2008, art. 275-76). (3) An appointed administrative council under the direct authority of the president manages the union territory of Nay Pyi Taw. The smallest formal administrative unit is the village tract, which consists of a cluster of villages and wards, which are counterpart units to village tracts in semi-urban and urban areas. Wards and village tracts are in turn grouped into 330 townships, where many Union ministry offices are located. Collections of townships are organized into seventy-four districts, which in turn form the fourteen states and regions (Constitution 2008, art. 49-51). Townships are the key building blocks of public administration in the country.

    Given this basic structure of sub-national governance, the next section will detail the political, administrative and fiscal dimensions of decentralization in Myanmar and assess their challenges to furthering decentralization. (4) Much of this information has only become known in the last few years, with key actors discovering their own roles and responsibilities for the first time. As such, in 2013, how state and region governments and hluttaws functioned was a black box to many inside and outside of Myanmar, with travels outside of Yangon by international development organizations still requiring government approval; access to state and region governments were also difficult.

    3.1 Political Decentralization

    The political dimension of Myanmar's decentralization reform is centred on the formation of the state and region governments, which are led by a chief minister and constitute a state/region parliament (hluttaw). While states and regions previously existed as administrative units for the country, they were administered by the centralized military dictatorship. Up until April 2011, they were managed by regional commanders supported by administrative staff from the Ministry of Home Affairs' General Administration Department (GAD). Given that, the formation of sub-national governments is a major development as the executive, legislative and judicial functions are separate and distinct from the Union government. These are primarily enshrined in Schedules Two and Five of the 2008 Constitution, which cover legislative and executive powers as well as revenue sources for the states and regions, respectively.

    Each chief minister is supported by a cabinet of nine ministers, such as ministers for finance, planning and economics, social affairs, electric power and industry, and...

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