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Myanmar’s Local Governance Reform Challenges

June 8, 2016

By Matthew Arnold

As Myanmar’s new government begins defining its reform policies, arguably the biggest need is for good governance. Following decades of centralized military dictatorship, the country confronts dual challenges of trying to loosen the military’s grip on public administration as well as push government agencies to be more accountable and deliver better social services. Where the legacies of dictatorship overlap most significantly with hopes for change is in terms of local governance, namely the basic public administration of Myanmar’s districts and townships.

Myanmar jetty

Following decades of centralized military dictatorship, the country confronts dual challenges of trying to loosen the military’s grip on public administration as well as push government agencies to be more accountable and deliver better social services. Photo/Kaung Htet

The most striking feature of Myanmar’s governance system is that it lacks a local government. Local administration is taken care of through the home affairs ministry via the ubiquitous General Administration Department (GAD).

Previous to 2011, the military was directly involved in managing local public administration with the GAD providing support. The military-drafted 2008 constitution dramatically increased the GAD’s powers. States and regions were to have some control, but local governance was to be kept under the control of Union ministries.

Housing the GAD within the military-led Ministry of Home Affairs and handing it a mandate to act as local administrators for districts and townships was a central tenet of the previous junta’s ”discipline-flourishing democracy.”

As the military distanced itself from day-to-day involvement in local governance, the GAD became the paramount agency, acting as administrators for the country’s district and townships.
With the National League for Democracy now in charge and pushing for sweeping reforms, the big question is: What to do about the GAD?

Local governance is the most unreformed part of Myanmar’s governance structures. The Union government has evolved greatly since 2011 through the election of the upper and lower houses of parliament and the installation by that parliament of a president and cabinet. In turn, states and regions have increasingly asserted themselves, thanks to the creation of their own governments, with each sporting chief ministers and cabinets plus local parliaments.

But below these structures, reforms have been relatively superficial. The administration of former President U Thein Sein made some changes under the mantra of ”people-centered development,” primarily through the indirect election of ward and village-tract administrators and the creation of some advisory committees at local levels, notably townships, which feature some community representation. However, Union ministries continue to dominate. For an average Myanmar citizen, interaction with government will be with Union bureaucrats via the local offices of Union ministries.

As the NLD government ponders how to improve public services and social justice, it is stuck with local governance arrangements that seem distinctly out of touch with hopes for change. The result is a fairly convoluted mix of local offices of Union ministries and a confusing array of local management committees driven by local bureaucrats but at times with a modicum of relatively shallow community representation.

Myanmar’s new government may want to move quickly toward reforms that allow for greater representation, accountability, and transparency, as well as for social service delivery, but its hopes for doing so are confronted by the stark reality of a lethargic and inefficient bureaucracy that provides its most direct interface with the Myanmar public.

Yangon City Development Committee, Mandalay City Development Committee, and township municipal offices are partial experiments at more representative local government structures. They have some community representation in their management bodies and specific responsibilities but are effectively part of the state and region governments. However, their existence and the imperatives for creating them ought to encourage a wider debate about instigating a proper third tier of local government throughout the country.

In most countries, local governments play important roles providing basic social services and democratically connecting communities to government through elected councils or mayors, for instance.

The fact that none exists in Myanmar raises questions about whether Myanmar needs local government with distinct authorities, revenue sources and responsibilities in order to fulfill popular aspirations for good governance and improved social service delivery. Ultimately, these questions must also be central to discussions of further democratization and a peace process centered on federalism.

That the new government is confronted by both of these questions – what to do with the GAD and whether some form of local government is necessary – is a massive challenge. It also greatly complicates how a governance reform agenda might be sequenced and prioritized. Answering either question would be challenging enough on its own, and neither can be fully answered without considering the other.

It is not surprising that after so many years under military rule, the country’s current political debate is more focused on reforming the GAD than a broader reconceptualization of local government in Myanmar. The focus on reforming the GAD is not new: The U Thein Sein government itself had raised the possibility of moving it out of the home affairs ministry without being able to make real progress. While it responds to long-held grievances over military dictatorship and ongoing, very real concerns over the role of the military in public life, this intense focus on the GAD may miss what is a bigger consideration and arguably a greater opportunity: creating a third tier of government that really responds to the aspirations of normal people for greater local control, more accountability, and better services from government.

There is significant public interest in reforming the GAD, which the new government must carefully weigh but should consider at the same the time the bigger question of wider local governance reforms. Conceptually, and also pragmatically, it is useful to frame this reform conversation on a longer timeline and around the bigger picture of what kind of governance Myanmar ultimately needs.

Reforming the GAD without first determining how the wider local governance space – especially the township-level – ought to be reformed runs the risk of leaving Myanmar with a convoluted, ineffective arrangement that continues to be dominated by Union ministries and still cannot really deliver what people want locally.

Ultimately the solution to Myanmar’s confusing governance structure at the township-level will need public sector reform to include the GAD, as well as consideration of further democratization. This is not an exceptional observation. U Thein Sein had, for instance, raised on several occasions the notion of elected councils for both districts and townships.

By thinking more holistically and focusing on the larger question of whether Myanmar needs local government and avoiding a narrower focus on the GAD, conceptualizing improvements to Myanmar’s local governance situation can be better served.

This article was first published on June 1 in the Myanmar Times.

Matthew Arnold is program director at The Asia Foundation in Myanmar. He can be reached at matthew.arnold@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funder.

Related locations: Myanmar
Related programs: Strengthen Governance
Related topics: Myanmar Elections, Transparency

1 Comment

  1. This is an interesting article, which highlights some of the big challenges in Myanmar. Working in Bangladesh on an SDC supported local governance programme, I can see the striking differences between Myanmar and Bangladesh. And can feel the challenges that the Myanmar government is going through. This way or the other the government has to take a course. Of course the model that is more desirable is to have locally elected self-governments, which can deliver services directly to their constituents. Taking such a decision would be a brave thing, but it may also raise a number of questions, such as – is there capacity to be elected as local governors? can the national government build and sustain this capacity, is there legislation in place? If Myanmar takes a wrong course form start, reforming things later might be more difficult. There are some good examples around on local governments capacity building and local governance reform. Bangladesh is a good example, in my mind – where local governments and citizens have a number of spaces to govern together and decide on things. An interesting model is promoted by India, Kerala as well. I wish Myanmar government a bright beginning and hopefully also a number of development organizations and donors can engage in this initiative, which could become a reform in itself.

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