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Decentralisation and Minority Representation in Post-Transition Myanmar: A Comparative Perspective


Wednesday, 6 December 2017 – The Myanmar Studies Programme at ISEAS organised a public seminar to discuss the complexities and concerns surrounding current discussions in Myanmar regarding decentralisation of government authority towards a future federal union, and potential challenges. Building on his Southeast Asia research experience, and recent fieldwork conducted in Myanmar, Professor Jacques Bertrand of the University of Toronto presented his views and insights to an audience of students and scholars, as well as a range of officials and executives in the policy and business community following developments in Myanmar.  Close to 30 participants attended the 1.5 hour seminar held at ISEAS in the morning of 6 December 2017.

Prof Jacques Bertrand shared his arguments on how the process of decentralization in Myanmar under the constitution of 2008 diverges from the expectations of ethnic minorities, including comparison with the experiences of Aceh and Papua in Indonesia (Source: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Professor Bertrand drew mainly from his current book project with two other Myanmar experts (Ardeth Thawnghmung and Alexandre Pelletier) to dissect the process of decentralisation in Myanmar. Myanmar’s transition to civilian rule starting 2011, which included launching nation-wide negotiations with ethnic armed groups to end the decades-long civil war and produce workable models of resource-  and power-sharing structures provided the broad backdrop to this discussion. The ceasefire negotiations currently led by the National League for Democracy (NLD) government since September 2016 had inherited several legacies – both historical and process-related – from the ceasefire/peace process initiated by its predecessor.  One key legacy issue is the constraints of the military-drafted 2008 Constitution.  Some analysts had assessed the 2008 Constitution as quasi-federal and thus providing a basis for further discussions towards more decentralised governance structures across the 14 administrative regions in Myanmar. However, Professor Bertrand assessed the 2008 Constitution as creating a de facto model of accommodation that diverged significantly with the ethnic monitories’ expectations. In Professor Bertrand’s view, the difficulty of reaching agreement on political assurances, as well as mechanisms for resource mobilisation and other fiscal and administrative competencies, currently being experienced in the peace negotiations point to this immanent divergence in the Constitution’s provisions. 

From Left to Right: Ms Moe Thuzar, and Prof Jacques Bertrand (Source: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute) 

A quick comparison of Myanmar’s current decentralization trajectory with the experiences of Aceh and Papua in Indonesia, showed that measures to introduce more fiscal and administrative autonomy at the state-level fell short of providing levels and guarantees of ethnic minority power that will satisfy their long-term demands. While the divergent experiences of Aceh and Papua in Indonesia reveal pernicious effects from which lessons can be drawn in Myanmar’s current negotiation process, the discussions in Myanmar are currently mired in discussions on federal principles and are still far from reaching agreement on a federal structure. Even if agreement was reached on such a structure, the implementation details would entail another detailed negotiation and consultation process. It should also be recognised that the military in Myanmar remains the largest stakeholder with considerable “veto” power on the extent of decentralisation to be implemented.

Close to 30 participants attended seminar (Source: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute) 

The discussions that followed Professor Bertrand’s presentation focused on understanding more of the similarities and differences between the Myanmar and Indonesia experiences, particularly the pros and cons of drawing from Indonesia’s decentralisation moves. Essentially, the benefits and drawbacks of implementing decentralisation in Myanmar centred on addressing the twin challenges of capacity and corruption. It was also important to recognise the centralised role of certain de-concentrated departments at the local level, such as the General Administration Department, which had branches in every administrative region but had a centralised reporting structure with its parent ministry, the Ministry of Home Affairs.  Some of the challenges that the NLD government was currently facing in Myanmar also stemmed from the incomplete entrenchment of political reforms by the previous administration, particularly at local levels. The reality facing Myanmar’s decentralisation process thus lies in the mismatched competencies between the formal and unofficial governance and reporting structures, which had in turn created mismatched expectations at both central and local levels.