Key Myan­mar dept now un­der civil­ian con­trol

Trans­fer of mil­i­tary-con­trolled home min­istry’s arm called a mile­stone but some say it’s cos­metic

The Straits Times - - FRONT PAGE - Tan Hui Yee In­dochina Bureau Chief In Yan­gon [email protected]

Myan­mar’s Gen­eral Ad­min­is­tra­tion Depart­ment (GAD) has been trans­ferred to a civilian­con­trolled gov­ern­ment min­istry, but an­a­lysts say the move at the end of last year may just be a cos­metic change for now.

The pow­er­ful body con­tin­ues to wield con­sid­er­able mil­i­tary in­flu­ence on every­day life, as it is run by for­mer army per­son­nel and forms the back­bone of lo­cal bu­reau­cracy.

The trans­fer has been por­trayed as a mile­stone in Myan­mar’s gov­ern­ment re­form, aimed at re­duc­ing the mil­i­tary’s in­volve­ment in pol­i­tics.

A pow­er­ful gov­ern­ment body in Myan­mar changed hands as last year drew to a close. The Gen­eral Ad­min­is­tra­tion Depart­ment (GAD), an arm of the mil­i­tary-con­trolled Min­istry of Home Af­fairs, was trans­ferred to the civil­ian-con­trolled Min­istry of the Of­fice of the Union Gov­ern­ment.

Of­fi­cials have tried to por­tray the trans­fer as a mile­stone in longer-term ef­forts to re­form Myan­mar’s un­wieldy two-headed gov­ern­ment con­trolled by mil­i­tary and civil­ian forces.

But some an­a­lysts have ar­gued that the change may be more cos­metic – at least for now. It would make lit­tle dif­fer­ence to the for­tunes of the rul­ing Na­tional League for Democ­racy party in next year’s gen­eral elec­tion, they say.

Myan­mar’s mil­i­tary-crafted Con­sti­tu­tion grants the men in green con­trol over key se­cu­rity-re­lated min­istries – de­fence, home af­fairs and bor­der af­fairs. But it is the GAD that is fre­quently cited in dis­cus­sions about the per­va­sive mil­i­tary in­flu­ence in daily life.

With over 30,000 em­ploy­ees, the GAD is the back­bone of lo­cal bu­reau­cracy that shapes eco­nomic and so­cial life. It col­lects taxes, is­sues li­cences and ap­proves land trans­fers. Its re­gional chiefs act as the sec­re­taries of re­gional gov­ern­ments.

And its top and mid-level po­si­tions are stacked with for­mer mil­i­tary per­son­nel.

Po­lit­i­cal ac­tivists al­lege that the GAD is a far-reach­ing in­former net­work of mil­i­tary chief Min Aung Hlaing, whose ac­qui­es­cence is needed for lo­cal bu­reau­cracy to func­tion un­der the civil­ian gov­ern­ment.

Key mem­bers of the rul­ing Na­tional League for Democ­racy (NLD), for ex­am­ple, of­ten cite bu­reau­cratic re­sis­tance to tem­per pub­lic im­pa­tience at the slow pace of re­form since it won the 2015 elec­tions.

The GAD’s trans­fer still leaves sev­eral mil­i­tary alumni in charge. Last Novem­ber, re­tired colonel Min Thu, a for­mer air force pi­lot, was picked to head the Min­istry of the Of­fice of the Union Gov­ern­ment, which was cre­ated in 2017 to speed up ad­min­is­tra­tion. His re­cently ap­pointed deputy is for­mer mil­i­tary cap­tain Tin Myint, who used to serve as di­rec­tor-gen­eral of the GAD and per­ma­nent sec­re­tary of the Home Af­fairs Min­istry.

“The mil­i­tary has said it would with­draw from pol­i­tics over time,” Dr Naing Swe Oo, a for­mer army cap­tain who now heads the Thayninga In­sti­tute for Strate­gic Stud­ies think-tank, tells The Straits Times.

“This may be one step in the process to give up po­lit­i­cal and ad­min­is­tra­tive in­ter­ven­tion.”

In­de­pen­dent an­a­lyst Yan Myo Thein is more scep­ti­cal. “It’s a move from ‘mil­i­tary’ to ‘re­tired mil­i­tary’,” he says. “It means mov­ing from di­rect con­trol of the mil­i­tary to in­di­rect con­trol of the mil­i­tary.”

While decades of mil­i­tary sup­pres­sion has thinned out ad­min­is­tra­tive tal­ent among civil­ians, Dr Yan Myo Thein thinks the choice of min­is­ters is more a strat­egy “to ex­tend mil­i­tary dom­i­nance for as long as pos­si­ble”.

An­a­lysts re­main cau­tious about the dif­fer­ence it could ac­tu­ally make to the for­tunes of NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi, given the short run­way to the next gen­eral elec­tion in 2020.

Re­sults of the past two by-elec­tions hint that the NLD’s hold over eth­nic mi­nor­ity ar­eas may be slip­ping.

Ms Suu Kyi’s gov­ern­ment has also come un­der strong in­ter­na­tional pres­sure for shield­ing the mil­i­tary which has been ac­cused of eth­nic cleans­ing in Rakhine state.

With the lin­ger­ing threat of sanc­tions and creak­ing pace of bank­ing re­forms, Myan­mar will likely see its econ­omy slow to 6.4 per cent in the year end­ing Sept 31, com­pared with 6.8 per cent in the pre­vi­ous pe­riod, said the In­ter­na­tional Mon­e­tary Fund last month.

Even if the trans­fer was the first step of gen­uine change, it could take years to over­haul the en­tire in­sti­tu­tion, said Sandhi

Gover­nance In­sti­tute di­rec­tor Khine Win.

“But at least the NLD gov­ern­ment can start the process of re­plac­ing for­mer mil­i­tary of­fi­cers with civil­ians,” he said. “We can­not change things overnight, but at least this depart­ment will be­come more civil­ian.”

PHOTO: REUTERS

Ac­tivists say GAD is a far-reach­ing in­former net­work of mil­i­tary chief Min Aung Hlaing. Its trans­fer still leaves sev­eral mil­i­tary alumni in charge.

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