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Decentralization: Bamars care about governing their own regions, too

9 Minutes To Read

Thein Than Win, from the Paññā Institute, and Mael Raynaud suggests that federalism is now an objective shared by the Bamar in Myanmar’s seven regions.

Ministers and civil servants attend the introductory session about research project conducted by the Paññā Institute in Monywa, Sagaing Region (Image courtesy of the Paññā Institute)

The title of this post may seem provocative, but our aim is not to antagonize ethnic nationalities. On the contrary, we would like to show that there is a consensus among the people of Myanmar regarding the importance of building what Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and ethnic leaders alike refer to as a “democratic federal union.” This should be good news to supporters of decentralization or federalism: that people in the seven regions of Myanmar would hope for, expect, and demand, greater degrees of autonomy and local governance, like people do in the seven states.

The Paññā Institute has organized eight focus group discussions (FGDs) in the Bago and Sagaing Regions, with a total of about one hundred participants, between October 2018 and January 2019, four in each of the two regions. Those FGDs followed the same pattern in both regions: one FGD with each one of four study populations and a total of 4 FGDs: one with ministers and civil servants, one with members of regional parliaments, one with journalists and one with local civil society organizations. These FGDs constituted the first phase of our project: “Developing Local Democracy: How Decentralization is Perceived, Applied and Envisioned in the Bago and Sagaing Regions.”

The initial findings of the research presented in this post are therefore limited to the Sagaing and Bago Regions, but based on our experience working in other states and regions, what we argue here is very likely to reflect views in other regions as well: People everywhere are getting increasingly invested in the work of their sub-national parliament, and government.

Our title may seem misleading, too. As is well known, the populations of both the Sagaing Region and the Bago Region are far from being made only of Bamar, and there is as much religious diversity there as there is “ethnic” diversity. We do not overlook the non-Bamar, in this study, and, in fact, our group interviews included those of non-Bamar ethnic origin. A number of the members and the founders and leaders of the Paññā Institute are proud of their ethnic heritage. But we feel the statement we make above— that Bamar care about governing their own regions, too— is maybe the single most significant aspect of our findings, as far as the future of Myanmar is concerned.

There has been much debate and discussion about democratization, equality and self-determination, as well as resource ownership and fiscal independence. While these have led to demands for the sharing of powers and for federalism, these debates have, to a large extent, and understandably so, focused on ethnic nationalities and ethnic areas. News articles and reports highlight how natural resources located in ethnic areas are exploited and how different ethnic national groups have been fighting for their rights and voicing their legitimate grievances for decades. We unambiguously sympathize with and echo these calls for equality, respect, and dignity.

With regards to federalism, political parties and organizations representing the interests of ethnic nationalities have defined basic principles, and even drafted constitutions for their respective states, for at least two decades. These actions aim to guarantee their rights to govern themselves within the frame of a federal system which, they hope, will come as a result of a Union Accord that would follow the National Ceasefire Agreement.

But how about the Bamar, who represent close to two thirds of the country’s population, and who are residing in all 14 states and regions ? Why are we not talking about Bamar expectations and demands in relation to federalism and sharing of powers ? The first, obvious reason is because they are collectively seen as a privileged group, supposedly the one who has been taking advantage of ethnic minorities for decades, often by force. As this logic goes, the Bamar have been in power both at national and sub-national levels since Independence from British colonial rule. As such, Bamar expectations have been largely ignored in discussions about federalism.  It is evident that the government and military leaders strongly represent, and push for, the interest of Bamar— but how about the aspirations of ordinary Bamar who simply want a functioning governance structure, one able to improve their daily lives? It is true that members of parliaments at both national and sub-national levels, and civil society and community based organizations from Bamar-majority regions have had the chance to participate in the ongoing 21st Century Panglong Conference series. They have had numerous opportunities to present their views in terms of future state building. But are these arrangements good enough in seeking a consensus amongst Bamar-majority regions?

One may wonder about the privileges of millions of poor Bamar farmers in rural areas like the Sagaing and Bago Regions where we are leading our research. Or, when it comes to workers in peri-urban areas of Yangon, many of whom are originally from Ayeyarwaddy delta, or those Anyathars who left their birth places to work as hard laborers in Malaysia or in Thailand, what privileges do they really enjoy? Who exactly have they been exploiting? And here we get to the core of the issue we are discussing: for millions of Myanmar citizens, whether Bamar or non Bamar, decentralization and federalism do provide a political answer. Of course, few of these millions of farmers and workers ever have the luxury of discussing federalism, and constitutional matters in general are far from their daily priorities. This is true of many non Bamar farmers and workers, too. But the stakeholders who represent them, elected representatives, civil servants, civil society activists, and journalists, and certainly specifically those who participated to our recent focus group discussions, do very much care, as do a growing number of, indeed, citizens.

In that sense, what we are saying here should be of the greatest interest to ethnic nationalities: the Bamar in the seven regions may have reasons to support the call for federalism. These reasons may be different from those that are specific to ethnic nationalities, whose perspectives should clearly remain central to conversations about federalism. But ethnic nationalities are no longer alone in demanding greater levels of autonomy for the states and regions. It was one thing for the NLD and others to support the call for federalism, as they have since 1988. It is a significant development that now citizens in places like the Sagaing Region or the Bago Region would care for, and invest so much in, the politics of their respective region, too.

We do not deny that federalism is a demand formulated by ethnic nationalities in order, specifically, to gain rights, equality, and the ability to govern their respective states. And we again unambiguously acknowledge the legitimacy of these demands. We are saying that a growing number of citizens, including Bamar citizens, in the seven Regions, and certainly the two regions where we have been leading our study, agree that greater degrees of decentralization, and federalism, would be positive developments for them, too, and that we have been the witnesses, with our research, of growing support and interest in sub-national politics.

In other words, the process to build a federal system is no longer “simply” about ethnic rights, as important as this aspect is. It is also about providing for a political system that will empower each and every citizen at the sub-national level, across the country.

These two issues are different in nature, and the second aspect we present here— federalism as a political system that empowers all citizens at the sub-national level— does not, and should not, overshadow the first aspect— federalism as a means to promote equality and the rights demanded by ethnic nationalities. But when a political system seems to answer the demands of different groups in society, even in different ways, then certainly an avenue exists for national reconciliation and harmony. And for people to join forces to succeed in achieving their common objectives.

So, let’s discuss further this research that we think enables us to make these bold claims.

It consists of 2 phases. We have completed Phase I and this article shares the key findings of this first phase of the study. Phase II will be designed in such a way that the findings from Phase I are further explored and analyzed in this second stage.  The four thematic areas for our research come as follows: assess the level of awareness/knowledge about the overall decentralization and decentralization process amongst the study populations; assess the level of awareness on decentralized powers currently granted in the 2008 Constitution; assess the way our target groups perceive the decentralization process as it is happening in the selected Regions (Bago and Sagaing); and understand how our study populations envision decentralization.

Over the past six months as a part of this research, we led the series of focus group discussions described above and observed that participants were keen to discuss decentralization (and our specific research) primarily because they are unhappy with the overall performance of their regional governments. Participants also expressed the view that the process of power-sharing between all three executive, legislative and judiciary powers at the union and sub-national levels is either slow, stagnant or going nowhere. Most of them noticed the inconsistencies  between the laws enacted by the Union Parliaments and those of sub-national parliaments. They also expressed concerns about the personal and institutional capacity of sub-national government organizations and civil service members in taking over the responsibilities that currently fall under institutions at the Union-level. When asked about the assistance and collaboration for the upcoming data collection for Phase II, almost all participants were more than willing to assist as much as they could because of their hope that this research would pinpoint where the knowledge and capacity gaps are in the sub-national institutions to fully utilize the decentralized powers for the betterment of their Region.  This willingness shows participants’ interest in speeding up the decentralization process and of finding a solution to build a governance structure which will guarantees a democratic federal union.

In other words, participants were frustrated by what they perceived as the poor performance of their region’s governments, they were concerned that the capacity is not fully there for their region’s institutions to absorb new powers, but still, they would clearly favor greater levels of decentralization. Asking for further decentralization while being concerned about local capacity to manage it was not seen as a contradiction by any of the participants to our focus groups discussions, nor is it for us.

In fact, it is a good thing that the more decentralization one wants to see, the more frustrated they would be by the limits of the process, the more seriously they would take the challenges it faces, and the more they would try and anticipate the practical implications of their demands.

Some other noteworthy findings, which will not entirely be news to those familiar with our general topic, include the lack of clarity in the division of roles and responsibilities between state and region ministers, found even for the government and the administration themselves. This is especially so when it comes to the work of the departments under their portfolios. Another well-known and much discussed issue is the extent to which the powers devolved to state and region governments  are mostly concentrated in the hands of the Chief Minister. The fact that so much depends on the Chief Minister, then, is one of the main reasons for variations in the pace of change/progress between states and regions. In this context, it is not helpful that all communications with Union Ministers and Ministries must go through the Chief Minister, a fact that greatly reduces the efficiency of state and regional governments.

In terms of actual policy making, one fact that seemed to be particularly resented by the participants of our FGDs was the fact that the Health and Education Ministries hardly devolve/de-concentrate any powers (especially budget decisions) to state and regional cabinets and parliaments. These two issues are not included in Schedule Two (and Five) of the Constitution, which leaves them entirely in the hands of the Union level. Participants to our FGDs tend to believe that it would be good for the regional level of policy making to be granted greater powers on these issues. Besides, participants noted that existing laws and regulations in any number of fields will become barriers even when union and sub-national governments agree to share powers if not changed or revised. In addition to Schedule Two (and Three, and Five), such laws and regulations need to be amended, or new ones adopted, as well.

In terms of territorial administration, participants complained about the limited powers granted to state and region governments with regards to institutions such as district- and township-level departments/authorities. However, participants noted that state and region parliaments had started to enjoy greater autonomy with regards to their own administrative and logistic offices and staff members, due to the newly enacted Myanmar Parliamentary Union Law. They also noted the different governance structures in Self Administrative Zones (e.g. Naga SAZ in Sagaing) and EAO controlled areas (e.g. Kyauk Kyi and nearby villages in Bago East, which makes these areas both a part of their respective Regions (and therefore supposedly gives regional authorities responsibility over them), but leaves them outside any control of the regional government, with the division of power between the Union Level and the regional level being unclear. Generally, participants deplored an overly cautious approach by regional governments that they said led to continued centralization.

To conclude, we found no explicit objection to the idea that more powers should be shared between Naypyidaw and the sub-national governments, including those in the ethnic areas. On the contrary, participants were overwhelmingly in favor of greater levels of decentralization. As mentioned earlier in this post, Bamars, too, are interested in governing their own regions. This is not because they want to regain their long-lost rights or equality through the sharing of powers or through federalism— which is the legitimate demand formulated by ethnic nationalities. Instead, this is because they simply think the closer the government is to the public, the more accountable and responsive they will become. They believe that this will lead to a better governance structure, in the future. Other interesting points are that interviewed groups in the study generally are aware of the capacity shortcomings and technical and legal barriers at both central and local levels for the decentralization to go further at full throttle. Phase II will research further the above mentioned points and uncover more insights on how the Bamars think of decentralization and why these insights are imperative in formulating a solution able to cure the political ills of Myanmar.

Thein Than Win is an independent researcher, leading the research project “Developing Local Democracy: How Decentralization is Perceived, Applied and Envisioned in the Bago and Sagaing Regions” for the Paññā  Institute. One key mission of the Paññā  Institute , a non-governmental organization based in Yangon, is to strengthen debates for social justice and sustainable development of the country by means of research and public discussion. This research is supported by the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung as part of the Decentralization Project, 2018-2019, coordinated by Mael Raynaud, Head of Research at Urbanize: Policy Institute for Urban and Regional Planning.

Mael Raynaud is an analyst with 15 years of experience researching Myanmar politics, society, conflict, and economy. He lives in Yangon, and works as a consultant.