Decentralization in Myanmar: A Nascent and Evolving Process

By Ninh, Kim N. B.; Arnold, Matthew | Journal of Southeast Asian Economies, August 2016 | Go to article overview

Decentralization in Myanmar: A Nascent and Evolving Process


Ninh, Kim N. B., Arnold, Matthew, Journal of Southeast Asian Economies


1. Introduction

As part of a roadmap to "discipline-flourishing democracy" announced by the military government in 2003, a new constitution was drafted and approved through a public referendum in 2008. Widely viewed as a constitution designed to maintain the central role of the military in state affairs, it nevertheless introduced significant new structures in sub-national governance. Fourteen state and region governments were mandated and some division of power between levels of administration was created. This was a historic shift from a highly centralized military dictatorship. After assuming power in April 2011, the Thein Sein government increasingly emphasized decentralization and improvement in local governance while engaging in ceasefire discussions with the numerous ethnic armed groups. Until recently, the term "federalism" was still viewed as a highly sensitive term synonymous with the disintegration of the state. It has become part of the ongoing peace process, with Myanmar's military publicly acknowledging that the country's future lies in some form of federalism. Meanwhile, the newly formed state and region governments are becoming more active in defining their own policies for sub-national governance.

Despite these developments, Myanmar remains a highly centralized country. Its system of governance is perhaps best understood as a "federal-like" polity. The creation of new sub-national governments are constitutionally mandated, but their powers are greatly circumscribed. The 2008 Constitution stipulates that 25 per cent of both the national parliament and the state/region assemblies are reserved for members of the military, who are under the control of the commander-in-chief of the Defence Services. While the sub-national governments now have appointed chief ministers and elected assemblies, public finances and administration remain primarily in the hands of national-level agencies.

This structural framework for decentralization and local governance began in 2011, although the Constitution was approved in 2008. The transition from military to quasi-civilian rule dominated by the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) occurred between 2011 and 2016. For the first time, new sub-national institutions had to figure out their roles, responsibilities and boundaries. In November 2015, the extraordinary electoral sweep by the National League for Democracy (NLD) under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi has given both government and parliamentary institutions a more democratic cast. How the new government will take up issues related to decentralization and federalism remains to be seen, but it is important to underscore the fact that this paper documents and analyses a political process that is very nascent in a context of rapid socio-political change and protracted armed ethnic conflicts. Nevertheless, as the space for greater local participation has opened up through the democratisation process and ethnic groups' demand for a federal union is increasingly accepted in the ongoing peace negotiations, the scope and depth of further decentralization will be a key element in the political discourse for the years ahead.

2. A Brief History of Decentralization in Myanmar

Myanmar's modern history has been defined by highly centralized military authoritarianism. Following a military coup in 1962, the country's basic administration increasingly concentrated inside Union (central) ministries led by generals, with local administration done through assorted local councils led by military commanders. Burma has had centralized rule given its history as a series of empires, but the country in its present geographic form did not exist until British imperial expansion consolidated the current boundaries.

Basic administration in "Burma proper" relied upon a hierarchy of administrators overseeing territorial units extending from the centre to local levels, in what could be considered a "graded territorial system" (Furnivall 1960, p. …

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