Now for the hard work

The National League for Democracy’s decision to shift the General Administration Department to the Ministry of the Office of the Union Government is an important step forward for civilian-led governance in Myanmar.

The GAD is ubiquitous, with offices from Nay Pyi Taw to the remotest corners of the country, and fields more than 36,000 staff. It is the eyes and ears of the government, with a mandate to ensure peace and stability and promote development. But its remit is broad: it also collects excise and taxes, manages land and coordinates development activities.

Occupying the lowest rung of the GAD ladder are the administrators of Myanmar’s 16,000-plus wards and village tracts. At the community level in particular the GAD is often the first port of call when there’s a dispute or problem, or residents need help with permits, licences or documents.

As a 2014 Asia Foundation discussion paper described it, the GAD is the “backbone of Myanmar’s public administration”. And since 2011 it has remained under military control as part of the Ministry of Home Affairs – one of three Union government ministries headed by Tatmadaw officers who are nominated by the commander-in-chief.

However, it would be naïve to expect this move to yield any immediate improvement in the way Myanmar is governed.

The GAD is often demonised for its militarisation – indeed, many of its officials, down to township level, are transferred army officers – but this is not unusual within Myanmar’s civil service. Many other areas of the bureaucracy are stacked with former military personnel, too.

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Similarly, the problems attributed to the GAD – corruption, lack of transparency and abuses of power, to name but a few – are far from unique. What distinguishes the GAD is its size and reach, and the regularity with which its officials interact with the public. If it functions efficiently and accountably, it will bring benefits to a vast number of people.

In short, improving the GAD will require more than a civilian minister, but having a civilian minister in charge who is committed to driving change could deliver significant results in the long term.

The immediate short-term gain from placing GAD within the Union Government ministry, as the government says it intends to do, is in the message that it sends.

First, it acknowledges an important principle of democracy: civilian control and oversight.

But more importantly, it’s an assertion of the NLD’s authority. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s government has disappointed many with its lack of vision, its unwillingness to take bold steps and its apparent subservience to the Tatmadaw. It has been a prisoner of its own timidity.

In taking control of the GAD, it is making a clear statement: we are in charge – or intend to be. The move could embolden it to execute other important reforms.

The Tatmadaw sees itself as the protector of the country’s sovereignty and the 2008 Constitution, and it believes that present circumstances require it to take an active role in national politics.

But within this broad ideological framework the NLD has plenty of scope to reduce the military’s power. After all, the NLD has the numbers in parliament. It controls the executive and nearly all of the ministries.

There is nothing – legally at least – stopping the NLD from going further. Why not also put the police under a civilian minister? The constitution does not explicitly state that the police force needs to be within the Ministry of Home Affairs, or under a minister nominated by the commander-in-chief.

Now may not be the right time for such a momentous change. But the NLD should continue to look for opportunities to deliver on its pledge to make the government answerable to the people, not the military.

This editorial first appeared in the January 3 edition of Frontier.

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