Key Myanmar dept now under civilian control
Transfer of military-controlled home ministry’s arm called a milestone but some say it’s cosmetic
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.”
Activists say GAD is a far-reaching informer network of military chief Min Aung Hlaing. Its transfer still leaves several military alumni in charge.