Thursday, March 18, 2010

Myanmar: Lack of capacity likely to hamper Myanmar’s bid to change its political structure

Yangon City Hall in downtown Yangon is the seat of the city's administrative body, Yangon City Development Committee

A lack of capacity on several levels is likely to hamper Myanmar’s bid to change its political structure, diplomats and analysts say.

The military government this month took another step on the "roadmap" for what it says will be a transition to democracy when it unveiled laws for an election later this year, the country's first in two decades.

The government has said the roadmap, launched in August 2003, will lead to a "discipline-flourishing democracy".

Among the changes to be made will be the creation of a presidential system of government, a bicameral legislature and 14 regional governments and assemblies, which the International Crisis Group describes as “the most wide-ranging shake-up in a generation”.

But given the military's reluctance to relinquish its grip on power and the long suppression of democratic activity in Myanmar, diplomats say the transition will face significant challenges - one of the most critical being whether the public service has the capacity to sustain the change.

A top-down decision-making process and limited development assistance and exposure to capacity-building programmes are among the factors that would hamper the ability of the public service to sustain a transition.

"There is obviously insufficient bureaucratic capacity in Myanmar today to manage and implement a 'transition to democracy'," Trevor Wilson, the Australian ambassador to Myanmar from 2000 to 2003, told IRIN.

Lack of experience

Myanmar has been under military rule since 1962, when military commander Ne Win seized power in a coup.

The lack of experience with a genuine parliamentary government since has contributed to a situation where "democratic processes of decision-making - involving open public debate, meaningful consultation, and responsive and caring structures - were almost unknown”, said Wilson.

"These processes cannot be introduced overnight, but need to be learned and practised," he said.

"There are some excellent officials, with good technical knowledge and experience," said a British diplomat based in Yangon. "But the worry is that this is an ageing demographic, close to retirement," said the diplomat, who requested anonymity in line with British government policy.

"The younger generations, whilst committed and with a level of expertise, have lower qualifications and less experience or exposure," the diplomat said.

Centralised decision-making

Myanmar is ruled by the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), where power is concentrated in a group of high-ranking military officials who maintain tight control over political decisions.

"The structure of decision-making, highly centralised, also has an impact on the effectiveness of the public service as a whole, and the ability and morale of individuals within a structure that does not encourage personal responsibility or initiative," said the British envoy.

Another Yangon-based diplomat said that while the public service had well-developed administrative processes, "considerable developmental support" in basic areas such as parliamentary services, public sector budgeting and policy development and application would be needed.

"Policy is issued in the form of orders and therefore tends not to have the benefit of cross-ministry coordinated consultation to ensure that the law itself is not in conflict with other policy areas," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Sanctions and international support

Unrealized public sector capacity is mainly due to chronic under-investment in education, but the withdrawal of international financial institutions (IFIs) has also hampered reform efforts.

The European Union imposed sanctions on Myanmar in 1996 and the US a year later, while international assistance has been restricted mostly to humanitarian programmes.

The persecution of Myanmar's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi - who has spent about 14 of the last 20 years in detention - and the harassment of her pro-democracy party, were the underlying rationale for the move.

"The system is badly in need of restructuring and this can really only come about with exposure, technical advice and financial input," said the British diplomat.

The International Monetary Fund and World Bank blocked development lending to Myanmar as part of western sanctions, while senior officials only had limited contact with the organizations and opportunities to train and learn, said Wilson.

"Sanctionshave made a bad situation worse by cutting off much normal contact and exchange with democracies," he said.

David Steinberg, director of Asian Studies at Georgetown University in Washington, said the gap created by the absence of IFI training programmes should have been taken up by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Myanmar is a member.

ASEAN "would be the logical place to have them and they should have begun long ago", Steinberg said.

But while sanctions are a factor, "the blame has also and fundamentally to be placed on the Burmese administration, which through thought control, censorship, and fear of alternative ideas has stifled creative thinking and scholarship", he said.

Disclaimer:This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States.
Photo: Copyright IRIN

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