UMFCCI head to step down
Factions have emerged at the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry as the body’s long-standing president has said he will not be standing in an upcoming, contentious vote.
U WIN Aung, the long-standing president of the country’s leading business body – the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (UMFCCI) – has said he will not stand in an upcoming election that has prompted fresh infighting and argument over how the organisation is run.
The UMFCCI wields considerable influence in the business sector – hosting foreign delegations, connecting international firms with local partners and lobbying the government on economic policy. Myanmar firms must be UMFCCI members to extend company registration, secure an import-export licence, and receive a crucial country-oforigin certificate to provide to foreign buyers, according to secretary general U Moe Myint Kyaw.
Membership fees provide the organisation with around K450 million a year, he added.
The chamber held its first elections in 2013 after drafting a new constitution, replacing a system where the Commerce Ministry appointed senior figures. But some members claimed the inaugural election, in which only around 3 percent of members voted, was unfair, opaque and designed to ensure senior officials were re-elected.
The run up to this year’s vote on September 17 has sparked a fresh round of acrimony. Members have already engaged in heated debate over whether sitting president U Wing Aung should be allowed another term, the rules on proxy votes, and whether the constitution should be altered to broaden the voter pool.
Well-known tycoon U Win Aung has been president for the last five years and is the organisation’s most prominent figure. He won the 2013 election while still on the US sanctions blacklist, from which he and two of his companies were removed in 2015.
U Win Aung told The Myanmar Times yesterday that he is not nominating himself for president or any senior positions in the election. Members must nominate themselves in order to be eligible for election. U Win Aung would not comment on why he had chosen not to stand, but said he would make a public announcement on the matter.
Much of the criticism in the run-up to election has been personal in nature, including direct attacks on U Win Aung, which are not related to the electoral process, said U Moe Myint Kyaw.
Comments framing U Win Aung as a “crony” or concerning on his private interests are not the concern of the UMFCCI, U Moe Myint Kyaw added. A 2007 US diplomatic cable published by Wikileaks described U Win Aung as a “a regime crony” who had given financial support to the former military regime that stepped aside in 2011.
“What we see mostly is personal attacks,” said U Moe Myint Kyaw, adding that as far as the UMFCCI is concerned the comments about U Win Aung are not an issue for his presidency, which he assumed and could potentially have retained through a transparent and democratic process.
New blood Although UMFCCI officials insist the election process will be democratic, only around 600 or so members – out of around 15,000 active ones – are expected to vote. Ordinary members elect around one-half of a 140-member of executive committee (EC), with the other half made up of automatically appointed representatives of various business associations.
Only members of the EC can elect a smaller central executive committee (CEC), which in turn chooses a group of around 20 senior management committee members – this includes one president and seven vice presidents.
But many UMFCCI members would also like to be able to elect the president, as would several sitting EC officials. “Some of the executive committee members want to be able to vote for senior positions like president and vicepresident,” said a member of the CEC, who asked to remain anonymous.
The call for more members to be able to vote for more positions stems in part from a desire for change, according to senior figures at the organisation. “[The UMFCCI] needs new blood, new ideas,” said vice chair U Maung Maung Lay. “Most members yearn for change.”
Ordinary UMFCCI member U Nay Lin Zin said that it was important for the country’s most important business body to have a “strong and active senior management”, and that it would be better to have new and younger people with fresh ideas in senior positions.
Senior officials are perceived to have vested business interests that benefit from their access to foreign delegations, he added. Sources at the UMFCCI said that other members, some of whom are representatives of industry associations, were also eager to see people in senior positions make way for someone new.
A degree of change already appears guaranteed given U Win Aung’s decision not to stand. When he won the 2013 election he had already been president for two years, having been appointed by the Ministry of Commerce. Because the constitution specifies a president can only sit for two consecutive terms, this sparked a heated debate over whether U Win Aung should be allowed to run for another three-year term in September,
U Khin Hlaing, a UMFCCI member who does not sit on either the EC or the CEC, said he had recently sent an official letter of complaint to the organisation arguing U Win Aung should not be eligible for another term.
U Aye Lwin, a secretary general at the UMFCCI, said that the previous two years U Win Aung spent as president under ministry appointment before the new constitution came into force did not count as a term. However, even though U Win Aung is only a “one-term president”, U Aye Lwin said that the president had decided not to stand again.
Problems with proxies Still unsettled is a third widespread complaint around the rules on proxy voting, which U Khin Hlaing also raised in his letter. The last UMFCCI election had only 600 or so voters, and officials expect a similar number this time. Some say that a requirement forcing members to register to vote and cast their ballot at the body’s Yangon headquarters helps keep turnout low.
Complaints about a short registration period have already prompted two extensions. The registration deadline for voting was originally August 15 and now closes tomorrow.
U Moe Myint Kyaw said that many members were simply uninterested in the election and the chamber, but hoped that members would become increasingly aware of how the UMFCCI is able to help the private sector and that exercising their right to vote in its management was important.
Individual members and NGOs are not allowed proxy votes at all. Registered companies – which have a company membership with a single vote – are able to use proxies, but only specific individuals employed at the firm such as directors or managers. This typically provides only three or four potential proxies, and many UMFCCI members want to be able to designate their proxy at will.
The CEC is still locked in debate over this point. A majority of CEC members believe that the constitution is not sufficiently clear on proxy votes, and support allowing registered companies to assign anyone they like.
UMFCCI vice president U Thein Han said the point of proxy voting was to make sure companies do not lose their vote unnecessarily. “You can’t say it’s a free election if we strictly [interpret the rules] for proxies,” said U Hnin Oo, UMFCCI honorable joint-auditor.
But a minority of CEC members are firmly opposed to the idea. U Aye Lwin said it would not be possible to change the rules to allow a free choice of proxies.
“Some companies in Myanmar have failed to extend their licences and others have registered but are not active,” he said. “We have to be very careful with those companies and can’t let them give proxy authority to anybody.”
The constitution allows the CEC and an election commission to resolve disputes around the voting process. A majority CEC vote would normally be enough to settle a matter, but because a vocal minority believe the constitution is clear on proxy voters the CEC has yet to find a solution.
“Reaching consensus is a nightmare for the time being,” said the CEC member that asked to remain anonymous.
U Aye Lwin said anyone wanting to change anything in the articles of association or the constitution will have to raise the matter at the annual general meeting, which typically takes place in August. Senior UMFCCI officials said there was debate about calling an extraordinary general meeting ahead of the election, but that there had not been enough time.
‘[The UMFCCI] needs new blood, new ideas. Most members yearn for change.’
U Maung Maung Lay UMFCCI vice chair
U Hnin Oo, honorable joint-auditor, thinks rules around proxy voting should be loosened.
U Win Aung, who said he will not seek re-election later this month, speaks at a business event in Yangon.