Local Parliaments in Myanmar: Key institutions, but too often overlooked

Researchers from EMReF consider the role of Myanmar’s local parliaments.

This post is part of Tea Circle’s “Year in Review” series, which looks back at developments in different fields over the last year.

On November 8, 2015, the people of Myanmar voted in the second general election held under the 2008 Constitution. They elected the National League for Democracy (NLD) into government, in a landslide. The USDP, a party founded by the military regime ahead of the 2010 elections, became a de facto opposition party— one that could, so it was widely thought, count on the support of the 25% of the Members of Parliament chosen by the military. All other parties were confined to the margins, except at the local level, in Rakhine State and Shan State, in particular. In many ways, parliament politics would be reduced to opposition between the NLD on one side, and the USDP and the military MPs on the other.

There has been much debate, on the first anniversary of the NLD government, about its successes and shortcomings, and, to a lesser extent, about the work and role, of the two chambers of the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (Assembly of the Union). The fourteen State and Region Parliaments, elected on the same day, have, in comparison, received significantly less attention. Yet, and especially at a time when it has become consensual to describe decentralization, federalism and peace as absolute priorities for Myanmar, these parliaments, and the associated local governments, are key institutions in the process of democratization. This is why the Enlightened Myanmar Research Foundation decided to focus on the level of States and Regions, since the new legislatures first convened in February 2016, through our Political Information Program.

In particular, it seems to us that many observers, and indeed political players, underestimate how much ‘what happens in these parliaments’ today functions to define the future of Myanmar’s institutions and politics. If federalism is to be the end result of the current political and peace processes (two processes that it would be wrong to see as entirely separate), then such federalism will not appear overnight, out of thin air,  On the contrary, it will be built on the foundations offered by the existing institutions logically relevant to federalism: the fourteen local parliaments and governments. Institutions have roots, they have a history, they have traditions, and these have already started being built. This is one message we would like to share with ethnic political organizations, and armed groups, in particular: one ignores the present political process at one’s own risk. Federalism is not a train that has yet to leave the station. It’s an already moving train that they’ll have to get on board with at some point. The opposite message could then be sent to those involved in Myanmar’s “mainstream” political process: the train of federalism is far from having reached full speed, and does not yet have all its passengers on board. In that sense, what happens in the local parliaments is shaping not only the present, but also the future of Myanmar, but it is happening in a context that is bound to evolve greatly if Myanmar is ever to be organized along the lines of a federal system.

Over a year after the local parliaments convened, and elected the members of the local governments (the fourteen ministers of security and border affairs are directly named by the commander- in- chief of the military), we thought we would try and see whether clear trends have started to appear, in the way the local parliaments work, and what kind of institutional traditions are starting to appear, now that it has been possible to observe two very different legislatures (one with a USDP majority, and the other with an NLD majority).

Such trends can be divided in three categories: Trends in the way practical issues are being discussed in the parliaments, and are, or are not, subject to new legislation; trends in the way the parliaments actually work; and trends in the way the local parliaments and their respective MPs relate, and communicate with other political and social institutions and organizations. In other words, what are these institutional traditions that are currently being built that are so fundamentally shaping the future of Myanmar?

The scope of issues open to debate and legislation, at the local parliaments level, is clearly defined in article 188 of the 2008 Constitution: “The Region or State Hluttaw shall have the right to enact laws for the entire or any part of the Region or State related to matters prescribed in Schedule Two of the Region or State Hluttaw Legislative List.” Schedule Two, which has been slightly modified in July 2015 to include, to some degree, issues like education, allows for a rather wide range of debates. It primarily includes issues such as finance and planning (including the State or Region budget), the local economy, development, agriculture, industry, energy, electricity, mining, forestry, transport, communication, construction and a broadly defined social sector.

Generally, it can be said that MPs in the local parliaments have shied away from making decisions on “big” issues with any kind of fundamental, or even philosophical, importance, and have rather committed themselves to resolving concrete problems their constituents face in their daily lives, often reacting to tensions that threaten to boil over. Recently, the creation of the Yangon Bus Service has led to heated debates at the Yangon Region Parliament that have been largely echoed among the general public, in a clear example of a parliamentary debates that is followed by the citizenry. Several parliaments have been active in finding solutions to labor or land ownership disputes at garment factories, most recently in March 2017 in Sagaing Region Hluttaw, as well as factories in other sectors (a cement factory in Mon State in October 2016, an oil refinery workshop in Irrawaddy Region the same month, et). Sometimes, MPs personally go to visit the factories where disputes have erupted, as MPs from the Irrawaddy Region recently did in a garment factory (although we understand this did not produce immediate results). A number of committees were formed in various local parliaments to hear and deal with complaints from the public, most often in relation to land or labour disputes. Mandalay Region will soon become the first local parliament to set up a human rights committee, which should, among others, deal with land disputes.

Based on the dozens of interviews researchers from our team have led at and around the local parliaments in the last year, it is our understanding that most MPs consider their mandate as being first and foremost one of tackling “local” issues and serving as representatives of their constituents in the most practical sense. Even when they do discuss more obviously political issues, such as education, they most often do so from a “local development” angle, for example by discussing the building of new schools. One rare case of a social issue having been discussed at a local parliament was found in Mandalay Region when MPs discussed and voted on a resolution regarding child sexual assault. One encouraging fact, knowing that the 2008 constitution could remain intact for any number of years to come, is that the degree to which military MPs participate, and indeed contribute, to parliamentary debates, especially in committee meetings, has started to slowly improve all across Myanmar, according to our research. This is, among others, the case in Regions such as Irrawaddy or Bago, where military MPs seem to act more with the interests of the local populace, rather than those of the Army itself. In the midst of this generally good news, cases of some unhelpful debates and decisions could unfortunately be found, as in Shan State when USDP MPs (the Shan State Hluttaw is dominated by the USDP and military MPs) voted to brand ethnic armed groups such as the KIO, the MNDAA and the TNLA as “terrorist organizations,” a move that led to renewed tensions in a part of the country where peace remains as elusive as ever.

But if the issues being discussed in each of the fourteen parliaments fit a generally similar pattern, the way the different parliaments perform varies greatly from one State or Region to the next. In April 2017, we released a report titled “Performance Analysis of the State and Region Hluttaws”, where we presented our findings on the performance of local parliaments during the previous legislature. For this, we focused on five areas: legislation, oversight, public access and communication, institutional building and individual capacity building, and administrative support from Hluttaw offices. To some extent, this study, and the work of following up on it with the current legislatures over the last year, confirms the notion that each State or Region parliament has developed a life of its own. The way the institution itself works, served by its own staff, is a significant factor. But it must be balanced with other factors, like how dedicated and competent the Speaker of one parliament is, how well individual MPs perform their tasks, the relations the parliaments have with local governments, with the ruling party and its leadership in Yangon and Naypyidaw, with local private sector, civil society, religious leaders, etc. The same, obviously, can be said of any political institution: the way it works depends both on who controls it, and on its own history and capacity. But this makes the rigorous scrutiny of the local parliaments and governments all the more important.

In terms of legislation, two types of laws must be identified: the so-called routine laws (those the parliaments are obligated to pass, on a regular basis, by the constitution), such as the State’s or Region’s budget, the local development plan or the tax law, and the non-routine laws (any law that is solely left to the initiative of an individual parliament). While all parliaments generally comply with their obligations, issues arise, and are many, in terms of how well, and how much, MPs coordinate with key institutions such as the local government departments concerned with any specific budget line. In terms of oversight, the obvious issue in the current legislature is that the MPs supposed to oversee the work of local governments come, for a majority of them, from the same party, the NLD, as the local government ministers, except in Shan and Rakhine States. Given the close relationships between MPs and cabinet ministers, it is sometimes difficult for the former to perform the tasks of “check and balance” of the local government that is expected of them. As an MP admitted in a focus group discussion that our researchers attended, MPs “cannot tell the government what to do, but can provide support and suggestions”. Indeed, MPs were “warned not to interfere with the work of the government but to simply oversee it”. This is in keeping with a broader culture of consensus, rather than confrontation, observed at the national level in present day Myanmar politics.

This consensus, unfortunately, does not extend to the inclusion, or indeed the consultation, of local players, from civil society to the private sector. Interviews led by our researchers show a significant, indeed worrying, lack of understanding of the role of these actors in local political life and their potential to bring about change, or provide expertise to elected representatives. One Chief Minister went as far as saying that it was not clear what civil society stood for, but that if activists wanted to help clean up the streets, their help would be welcome. Many interviewees reluctantly admitted that they felt they actually had less access to those in power under the NLD than they did under the previous administration. This could not help but have consequences in terms of communication and public access. The way our researchers are welcomed, or not, to interview elected politicians, ask for public records (and get an access to them), and work with Hluttaw staff is in itself a clear indication of how open and well functioning a parliament is. Nevertheless, real efforts are to be noted in terms of communication. Several parliaments are now equipped with a website, and some, like Bago and Sagaing Regions, have several thousand followers to their Facebook pages (Magwe Region has almost nine thousand). All this in a context where local media, such as the Mandalay News Journal or the Bago Weekly, follow the work of their local parliament with an increasing level of interest.

We believe that the picture our research shows is one of slowly improving institutions that are themselves learning what democracy means, and how they are supposed to work. Local parliaments are a work in progress, but they do indeed work—and they are key to the future. They are also institutions where the roots of what could become local democracy are formed.

If the issues identified in our reports and the rest of our work, including the issues faced by our team as they attempt to follow the work of the fourteen parliaments, are often all too familiar to those who follow Myanmar politics, our findings are often also a cause for celebration. The parliaments work better than many may assume, and the willingness on the part of all players— from the NLD ministers to the Hluttaw office staff to military MPs— to learn, improve, and make the current political process a success, is more than encouraging.
This article was written the Enlightened Myanmar Research Foundation’s Political Information Program’s team of researchers: Tinzar Htun, Zaw Min Oo, Nyein Thiri Swe and Mael Raynaud. For more information, visit: www.mypilar.org

Photo: U Khin Maung Yin, Speaker of the Bago Region Parliament, shares opening remarks at the launch of a report published by EMReF.

Photo credit: Bago Region Hluttaw