A spokesperson for the ruling party has blamed “some in the bureaucracy” for the country’s poor economic reform, saying excessive redtape is a “stumbling block in Myanmar’s democratic transition”.
U Myo Nyunt, spokesperson of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party, made the comments during an interview with Chinese media group Caixin’s subsidiary publication Globus at the NLD’s headquarters in November, 2018.
He said the most pressing need for Myanmar is to “secure some economic breakthroughs” to “alleviate the economic woes for the masses... I hope our colleagues [in government] can tackle this issue in the near future.”
"This is because without economic progress, it will be hard for us to win the 2020 General Election. People right now are under a severe economic burden. Even as middle class, we cannot afford our own fuel costs, we can only ride public buses,” he said.
U Myo Nyunt also highlighted how entrenched the military’s influence and involvement is in the economy.
“The military controls many big companies in Myanmar, including in aviation, banking, energy, imports and other areas.”
The spokesperson cited the ruling party’s lack of experience and the resistance within the bureaucracy as two bottlenecks for the administration.
U Myo Nyunt emphasised the bureaucratic opposition against the political leadership during the interview, adding that he hopes the NLD can tackle this with “radical” changes after winning the 2020 General Election.
“The bureaucracy is slow to act [on reforms] and this could be because some prefer to go back to the old days.”
According to the Civil Service Personnel Law, government officials have to be transferred to another town if they do not perform.
U Myo Nyunt said, in one instance, an official was transferred to a more prosperous and developed town instead, which amounted to a promotion and not penalty.
“We should have taken action efficiently and effectively, but right now we are rather hesitant,” said U Myo Nyunt, adding wrong-doers need to be disciplined more effectively.
Efforts to modernise and reform Myanmar’s bureaucracy are still at an early stage.
Henrich Dahm, a consultant in Yangon, argued last year that the legacy of centralised military dictatorship has hampered reform.
A NRGI report released last January revealed that Myanmar’s policy-making institutions are “nascent”. The issue of bureaucracy is manifested through “the sparse statutory framework” and the absence of clear guiding legislation or direction from elected representatives or the Cabinet.
According to the report, many groups of policy makers within the govrnment have influence over the reform of powerful state-owned enterprises, key drivers of revenue for the country, but none is leading the process.
Ultimately, the bureaucracy protects the status quo. Parliament also lacks the resources and authority to hold it accountable.
“It is absolutely fair for U Myo Nyunt to say that the bureaucracy has been an obstruction,” Kim Jolliffe, an independent researcher on Myanmar, said.
Until recently, the Home Affairs Ministry appointed and controlled the General Administration Department (GAD) at each level of government, which covers more than 16,000 local districts and townships.
An Asia Foundation (TAF) report in 2014 described the GAD as the “backbone of Myanmar’s public administration” with more than 36,000 staff spread across the country.
Mr Jolliffe said the GAD acts as the main line of coordination between all government departments, houses many of the government’s central administration structures which oversee the administrators at district and township level as well as village tracts and ward administrations. Therefore, the implementation of any new policy would depend on the cooperation of the GAD.
But the researcher argued that the NLD-led government “does not get a free pass on this [stalled reforms]”.
“As with the government’s approach to Rakhine and other high-profile issues, the question is if the NLD has been trying to implement all of these dramatic changes and has simply been blocked, why isn’t it communicating that to the public and other stakeholders more clearly and why isn’t it using other forms of political and social capital to push them through or at least to maintain public backing.”
For most observers, the relations between the ruling party and the military “look far too comfortable and pleasant to believe there is a huge battle of wills taking place in every sector under the surface”, he added.
The NLD also understood the architecture of government before it came into office and has had more than two years to orientate.
“It is worth asking why they [the NLD] hasn’t had comprehensive plans for getting their policies through in such an environment,” he commented.
A policy adviser, speaking on condition of anonymity due to sensitivity of the matter, said it is important to understand that Myanmar’s bureaucracy was never designed to provide public services.
“It was designed as a system of controls, primarily to serve special interests. It will take many years to not only change government procedures so that civil service incentives are aligned with the public interest, but also to change the mindset of senior officials so that they view their jobs as serving the public.”
"At the same time, certain officials and private sector businesses are benefitting considerably from the current system, which creates an incentive to resist reform,” the adviser told The Myanmar Times.
Despite the obstacles, Enze Han, an associate professor in politics and public administration at the University of Hong Kong, stressed that economic development is crucial for the election in 2020.
“If the NLD party cannot deliver [on the economic front], then people’s enthusiasm for democracy will fade,” Dr Han said.
Waiting and hoping for “some kind of economic breakthrough” to “magically occur” is not the solution, however.
Mr Jolliffe said “the obvious question” is what the government is doing firstly to improve the economy in general, and – more importantly – to ensure that economic growth is inclusive and translates into improved public welfare.
The administration needs to improve the lives of the masses to secure popular support, which will not happen automatically even with a fortunate economic upturn.
All quotes from U Myo Nyunt in this article have been translated from Mandarin.