Myanmar Way to Democracy: Aung San Suu Kyi will run the cabinet, but the generals continue to run the lives of 1.5 million“

Constitutional lawyer Ko Ni explains how the General Administration Department grants the army control over all levels of the civil service.(Photo: Phyo Thiha Cho/Myanmar Now)

All levels of government administration are under authority of the military chief”

By Phyo Thiha Cho
February 1, 2016

YANGON -- As the National League for Democracy (NLD) prepares to take over from the army-backed government of President Thein Sein it faces the challenge of getting a handle on government institutions and possibly reforming them.

One such institution is the General Administration Department (GAD), which functions as the backbone of local administration throughout the country. The GAD falls under the Home Affairs Ministry, which is controlled by an army general in accordance with the Constitution. It pervades Myanmar’s civil service from the state and region level, down to the district, township, village and ward levels.

Created in 1972, the GAD grants Myanmar’s army chief direct, centralised control over government administration down to the lowest level. This mechanism raises questions over whether the NLD can wield effective control over government machinery. The GAD will also have to be reformed and civil service control decentralised to states and regions if ethnic minorities’ demands for a federal union are to be met.

Ko Ni, a Supreme Court lawyer who is a legal advisor to the NLD, spoke to Myanmar Now reporter Phyo Thiha Cho about the importance of bringing the GAD under civilian control and decentralising its powers.

Question: What needs to be done to address the decades-old problem of bad governance in Myanmar?

Answer: The former military leader Ne Win formulated a general administration system that is controlled by a single government agency (the GAD). All the 14 states and regions’ civil services are under the management of Ministry of Home Affairs. The same practice was kept up by the military government after the 1988 coup.

In accordance with the 2008 Constitution, there are 15 governments - the central government and the 14 state and region governments. It is a seemingly liberal administration system for respective states and regions without obvious controls of the central government.

But actually the whole country is administered by the General Administration Department and the Myanmar Police Force, which are under the Ministry of Home Affairs. Its minister is appointed by the military chief. So, all the levels of the administration system are under the authority of the military chief.

Q: There are elected officials in some of the local government units, such as on village level, working alongside the GAD, but it seems the GAD handles most of the governing and has the most authority. Is that correct? 

A: Yes, this is a highly centralised system of government. Actually, the state and region parliaments elect their government members and have their own chief ministers (appointed by the president). 

States and regions should be able to appoint their civil service staff, as well as police members. And then they would not have to depend on the central government and could control a lot of administration processes. Their respective ministries could find budget for their own government.

But as the central government is currently taking power on these processes (through the GAD), the (state and regions’) local ministries have no authority in their own areas.

Q: What should the new government do with regards to reforming the GAD if it wants to create a real federal union?

A: Most of the military members, the government and our NLD party now want to develop our country with a federal administration system. In doing so, the whole administration system must be changed. The control of General Administration Department on all the government procedures is contrary to the federal system and should be abolished.

Q: Some say at least parts of the 2008 Constitution meet the norms of a federal system. Is that right?

A: It cannot be said the 2008 Constitution has some norms of a federal system. It completely lacks federal practices. It is just a fake ‘federal constitution’ because it does not grant full authority of administration to state and regional governments. 

The Constitution said the local governments are responsible for supporting the central government’s efforts to ensure peace and rule of law. In fact, (in case of a federal union) the central government must not intervene in the administration of local governments at all. But the central government now has full authority over the whole country and the local government lacks real power.

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