The Inchoate Legislative Scrutiny of the Myanmar Police Forces: A Study of the USDP Legislature (2011-16).

AuthorEgreteau, Renaud

How do post-authoritarian legislatures craft police oversight? This article applies McCubbins and Schwartz's model of congressional oversight to Myanmar's inaugural post-junta legislature (2011-16). It aims to assess whether parliament began to play a role in police oversight following the end of the junta's rule in 2011. It draws on the analysis of official legislative proceedings and interviews with members of parliament from both the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and the opposition. The findings suggest that--echoing large swathes of scholarship on parliamentary scrutiny in fledgling democracies--an inchoate form of "fire alarm" oversight began to develop. The Union legislature under the USDP emerged as a site for occasionally shedding light on police (mis)behaviour, but failed to effectively act on, or sanction, misconduct. Police scrutiny was tentatively fostered by a handful of backbenchers who had a keen interest in police issues, a background in security affairs or were facing pressure from their constituents to ventilate their grievances against the police in parliament. These findings contribute to a better understanding of the practice of police oversight in new legislatures operating under praetorian settings.

Keywords: Legislative scrutiny, police oversight, fire alarm oversight, accountability, Myanmar, Myanmar Police Forces.

The question of how post-authoritarian regimes craft civilian control over the armed forces has generated a considerable body of literature. Police oversight in times of democratization, however, has received less scholarly attention. In democracies, institutional constraints on state behaviour are important instruments for the protection of citizens (and non-citizens) against abuses and misconduct by state agencies and their representatives. (1) A representative democratic body such as an elected legislature can, and must, play a decisive role in exercising oversight over organs and institutions of the state. (2) However, effective parliamentary oversight cannot depend on the sole presence of an elected legislature and the design of tools and mechanisms for legislative control. (3) The readiness and ability of legislators to modify legislation and vet budget proposals, the political will to investigate and inquire into government malpractices and the power to highlight and sanction misbehaviour are essential to the effectiveness and regularity of legislative oversight. Recent studies point to such a correlation between political will and effective parliamentary scrutiny in post-authoritarian settings. (4)

This article takes Myanmar as a case study to examine the evidence of such an inchoate form of parliamentary scrutiny over the police following the end of an army-led authoritarian rule in 2011. It focuses on the inaugural post-junta legislature that convened between January 2011 and January 2016, in which the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) commanded an overwhelming majority. The 2008 Constitution, which heralded the country's transition from direct military rule under the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) junta to a semi-civilian, parliamentary-based political system which is popularly elected, generated great optimism at the time. (5) The withdrawal of the armed forces from day-to-day policymaking did not, however, lead to a complete exit of the security forces from the country's political, social and economic spheres. (6) Rather, the underlying grip on all levels of power that the security forces--including the police forces--had consolidated since the 1950s continued almost undisturbed. (7) The February 2021 military coup proved a stark reminder of the sense of impunity and superiority that the Myanmar security establishment enjoys, even after a decade of semi-civilian, parliamentary experiments. (8)

How did Myanmar's first post-junta parliament address policerelated matters? When, how and by whom were issues of policing and police (mis)conduct raised in the house dominated by the USDP and military appointees? Which legislative tools were used? This study builds on a thorough investigation of the legislative records of the 13 parliamentary sessions held by the 2011-16 assembly, with supplementary evidence provided by in-depth, semi-structured interviews of Union-level legislators. (9) To examine whether a particular pattern of legislative oversight emerged in such a postauthoritarian context, this article employs Matthew D. McCubbins and Thomas Schwartz's model of congressional oversight as a frame of reference. (10) In their study of the US Congress, McCubbins and Schwartz identified two approaches to legislative oversight that differ according to the frequency, intensity and origins of scrutiny: "fire-alarm" mechanisms (featuring selective monitoring triggered by public complaints and individual initiatives) and "policepatrols" techniques (involving a more active, steady, regular and centralized mode of scrutiny by parliament itself). I offer here two propositions. First, I contend that the 2011-16 legislature under the USDP emerged as a potential site for shedding light on issues related to police (mis)behaviour, organization and funding, but that it failed--both by design and by default--to effectively act on, correct or sanction police misconduct, violence and abuse. Second, when such a cautious, cursory scrutiny of the police was initiated during a plenary session, it was mostly done by the same handful of backbenchers. These individuals had either a keen personal interest in police matters, a background in security affairs, or a willingness to respond to the direct demands of their constituents who were eager to see police-related problems addressed at the upper levels of government. Echoing patterns observed in other fledgling democracies, these findings suggest that a form of "firealarm oversight" tentatively took shape in Myanmar's first post-junta legislature. They have critical implications for the theory, practice and understanding of police oversight in praetorian societies and nascent, post-authoritarian legislatures. The idea that an emerging, post-junta legislative body can still shape a minimal model of police oversight despite a highly unfavourable, illiberal external environment is an important underpinning for Myanmar's long-term trajectory of democratic institution-building. However, such a degree of oversight can hardly be increased--and police accountability enhanced--without progress in the empowerment and autonomy of parliament, and the professionalization of its members.

The next two sections review the scholarship on democratic policing and legislative oversight, and the recent literature on

Myanmar's police forces and reforms. After describing the dataset and methods of this study, the following section discusses the findings, making sense of the inchoate patterns of police oversight observed in Myanmar in the early 2010s. The final section highlights some of the key limitations to the emergence of a form of post-junta police oversight in Myanmar and draws broader conclusions on the tentative steps taken by young, post-authoritarian parliaments towards police oversight.

Legislative Oversight and Democratic Policing

The conceptual framework guiding this study has been informed by two major theoretical models. First, there is a large body of work on "democratic policing". The independent oversight of security and police forces is critical to democracy. (11) Establishing processes and equipping relevant bodies with the tools to scrutinize agencies holding the monopoly of legitimate use of coercion is an essential component of democratization. (12) There are many types of police oversight worldwide. Some are solely grounded on citizenship participation and investigations carried out by independent bodies. (13) But most consist of a plurality of instruments and mechanisms. "Democratic policing" is understood as a form of police scrutiny that involves the participation of elected political leaders, citizens and public institutions to hold police forces accountable and monitor how they uphold the rule of law.

Among the external bodies that can perform a potentially extensive oversight of the police are the legislative organs. Parliaments around the world have engaged in an array of activities aimed at shaping police governance--with differing levels of success. (14) In particular, Mario J. Aguja and Hans Born have identified three arenas in which parliamentary institutions can play a key role in "policing the police". (15) Parliaments can first legislate on police affairs and enact, or review, police-related laws and regulations. Next, they can exercise oversight over the conduct, activities and internal management of the police. Lastly, they can scrutinize and audit the annual budget and public spending of police forces. Building on their model, this article investigates whether, and if yes, how Myanmar's inaugural post-junta legislature exercised these three functions to address police-related problems or violations over the course of the early 2010s.

Second, the preferences for specific legislative oversight tools and frameworks can vary considerably according to the institutional arrangements, political systems and culture under which parliaments operate. (16) The profile, political savviness, and experience of the parliamentarians also matter. One of the most influential models of legislative oversight in political theory and administrative law has been proposed by McCubbins and Schwartz. As mentioned, their study of the US Congress distinguished between police oversight in terms of patrolling versus firefighting. (17) Similar to what a police unit would regularly do in an urban neighbourhood, patrolling involves lawmakers steadily scrutinizing the executive, from above and well in advance. Lawmakers (and their staff) acting as police patrollers can thus spend considerable time...

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