Notes from the Field

In Myanmar, an Evolving Discourse on Decentralization

October 2, 2013

With a much-heralded democratic transition underway in Myanmar, the future holds the potential for impressive gains but also significant challenges. Among the latter, decentralization and state-local relations as mandated by the 2008 constitution are emerging as a critical issue for both the country’s stability and long-term development. A history of highly centralized governance, subnational conflicts, and ongoing disputes over the constitution, however, mean that the implementation of decentralization in Myanmar is likely to be a contested and convoluted process.

Myanmar Market

With a much-heralded democratic transition underway in Myanmar, the future holds the potential for impressive gains but also significant challenges. Photo/Geoffrey Hiller

Exactly how the institutional arrangements are defined by the constitution and how they have actually been carried out on the ground are not well known, neither inside nor outside of government. For the past year, The Asia Foundation and the Centre for Social and Economic Development of the Myanmar Development Resource Institute have embarked on a research effort aimed to map the state of subnational government in Myanmar to contribute to the policy discussion on effective and responsive governance. The Foundation recently published these results in a new report, “State and Region Governments in Myanmar,” and is disseminating these findings and recommendations as widely as possible among government at national and local levels, development partners, and civil society organizations in Myanmar.

Under the 2008 constitution, 14 state and region governments were created that are equivalent in terms of structures and mandates. States refer to areas with large ethnic minority populations and are located along Myanmar’s borders, while regions encompass majority Burman areas. There are a total of seven states and seven regions in the country, and they form the basic building blocks of Myanmar’s subnational governance. State and region governments consist of a partially elected unicameral parliament known as a hluttaw, an executive led by a chief minister and cabinet of state/region ministers, and state/region judicial institutions. The hluttaw is composed of both elected members and appointed military representatives, equal to one quarter of the total. The chief minister is selected by the president from among elected or unelected hluttaw members, and confirmed by the hluttaw.

Our research team carried out field work in four states and two regions to obtain first-hand data that revealed both significant changes to the structures and functions of Myanmar’s subnational governance, as well as challenges to further decentralization. On the one hand, for the first time in the country’s history, there are functioning subnational governments that have direct legislative responsibilities. Decentralization has been a priority reform area for President Thein Sein’s government, which intends to use it to spur economic development, improve service delivery, and enable political reforms to support nascent peace processes with ethnic armed groups. The government’s guiding Framework for Economic and Social Reform emphasizes the development of laws and regulations related to decentralization, highlights the possibility of expanding state/region responsibilities, and underscores the need for a more “comprehensive” policy on decentralization. In hopes of energizing the reform process, in August the president announced five significant public administration reform initiatives to quicken decentralization, including increasing state/region influence over human resources and further de-concentrating central ministries.

Much will need to be done before substantial progress on decentralization can be realized. The political autonomy of these new governments is limited by a centralized appointment process. It is significant that chief ministers participate in the regional hluttaw, but they are accountable ultimately to the president, not to their assemblies. They can constitute their cabinets as they wish – involving elected members often, but not necessarily – and the cabinets’ ministers have little control over the administrative apparatus, limiting the effectiveness of the new governments. State and region budgets are as yet small, and prepared in a way that preserves central influence.

Nevertheless, it is important to note that the nascent experience of decentralization is opening up new local political and institutional space that is already increasing the awareness and interest of diverse groups in considering what should constitute balanced state-local relations. The hluttaws present a real opportunity for representation of a wider range of political forces than was ever possible before, either nationally or locally. The strong participation of ethnic minority and regional parties in subnational government is an impressive achievement, but the interest in further decentralization is shared by local branches of national parties and local officials themselves.

Myanmar’s ongoing efforts to implement decentralization are profoundly important to the future peace and stability of the country. Many challenges remain, but the creation of new state and region governments has allowed for the emergence of a national discussion on what the shape of the country should be after decades of centralized authoritarianism. Increasingly, civil society organizations and the media openly discuss subnational governance issues, including debates over the meaning of federalism, long considered too sensitive a topic for discussion. Further decentralization reforms are needed to align the new political structures with appropriate administrative and fiscal arrangements which should be linked to the wider democratization, peace, and public administration reform processes.

Kim N. B. Ninh is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Myanmar and Matthew Arnold is an assistant director based in Bangkok. They can be reached at kninh@asiafound.org and matthew.arnold@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual authors and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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