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Despite its strong mandate from a thumping election victory, Burma’s new National League for Democracy government will struggle to wield the power it needs over the civil service to carry out its reform plans effectively, political analysts say.
During the days of military rule, Burma’s civil service was supplanted with a powerful, centralised institution controlled by the army – the General Administration Department (GAD). It controls decision-making down to the smallest administrative unit in all corners of the country.
This arrangement underlines the continuing powers of the military and raises questions over whether a civilian NLD cabinet would be able to exert control over an integral part of government machinery.
“The GAD is actually and potentially so powerful that its very character will really determine the extent to which Myanmar’s bureaucracy is ‘democratised’ or ‘reformed’,” said Trevor Wilson, Australia’s former ambassador to Burma, who continues to write about the country.
Breaking up the GAD’s centralised control over government bureaucracy and transferring some of its powers to the states and regions will be necessary if the NLD is to create a genuine federal union in Burma, as ethnic minorities have long demanded.
The GAD falls under the authority of the Minister of Home Affairs, who, in accordance with the 2008 Constitution, is an army general, just like the Minister of Defence and the Minister of Border Affairs and Immigration.
Thus, Commander-in-Chief Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing wields ultimate control over the civil service down to the ward and village level, even though an NLD president will soon run the cabinet.
“This will be a headache for the incoming NLD-led government,” said Ko Ni, a constitutional lawyer who advises the NLD.
A post-election report from the International Crisis Group in December notes that the NLD’s lack of control over the Home Affairs Minister post and the GAD will present the party with a serious challenge. “It will be very difficult for the new government to run Myanmar… without the military’s cooperation,” the paper said.
Powerful and Ubiquitous
The workings of the GAD are little known. A 2014 report by the Asia Foundation offers a rare piece of research that describes its powers: “The General Administration Department is central to the functioning of the administrative mechanism across the country. No other government organisation has such a wide presence in the country. Even the Tatmadaw (army) is not spread among the general population to the same degree.
“The importance of the GAD depends not so much on what it explicitly controls, which is, in fact, a great deal, but rather because of the GAD’s ubiquitous presence, and the authority to coordinate, communicate among, and convene other government actors,” said the report, noting the GAD had not been subject to any reforms during President Thein Sein’s term.
The GAD was born in 1972 under dictator General Ne Win whose government abolished the previous bureaucratic structure – the Secretariat Office. Under the post-1988 junta, “the GAD expanded in size and importance to support functioning of the Myanmar state,” the report said.
The department now supports coordination between the government’s 36 ministries, connects the government in the capital Naypyidaw with the nearly 64,000 villages in the country, and runs the civil service of the states and regions.
It oversees local governance in rural and urban areas, with its broad powers reaching to land management, media scrutiny, registration of non-governmental and community organisations, and the documentation of the internal migration of people.
District and township administrators are GAD officials, while a GAD executive secretary controls a state/region’s civil service and answers to a superior in Naypyidaw rather than to the state or region’s chief minister.
On a local level, GAD administrators are the civil servants that ordinary citizens come into contact with for day-to-day needs, from registration of births and deaths to disputes and tax collection.
Need for reform
Ba Maw, a Minister of Social Affairs in Chin State and a Union Solidarity and Development Party member, said GAD officials were powerful in running the civil service in his state and even managed the correspondence of the state ministers, including his.
He and some state ministers suggested revoking the powers of the GAD at meetings with top Home Affairs officials in Naypyidaw, but their proposal was ignored. “They replied that the GAD officers will need to manage and facilitate the transfer of power from the outgoing government to the incoming administration,” he said.
According to Nyo Nyo Thin, an outgoing independent member of parliament in Rangoon Division, the Minister for Home Affairs had appointed mostly former military officers as district and township level administrators, adding that this had hindered transparent reforms.
Nyo Nyo Thin recalled that she once managed to reveal a corruption case involving a GAD official who was a former army officer, but he did not lose his job and was instead transferred to another township.
She said reforms of the GAD should be implemented so that the district and township administrator positions are filled through an election process. Currently, only ward and village tract administrators are democratically elected, but have little power.
“The fact that only the Ministry of Home Affairs can appoint these officers does not conform to democracy,” she told Myanmar Now. “Whether the chief ministers of states and regions can rein in the GAD officers will be a great challenge to the new government.”
Ko Ni, who advises the NLD, said the state and region chief ministers would have the power to dismiss any GAD officials who obstruct the orders of the new state and region governments. “The GAD officer is responsible for implementing the decisions of the local governments. If he cannot do that he can be removed from his post,” he said.
According to Wilson, the former Australian ambassador, the GAD’s structure and authority as a department are not necessarily problematic, as long as the GAD is brought under control of the president, and its operations are made transparent and are closely scrutinised, preferably by parliament.
“The GAD is effectively the elite political agency in the Myanmar bureaucracy. Most bureaucracies (in other countries) have a powerful elite agency performing a stabilising and essential political role,” he said.
Hla Myo, director of the GAD’s Foreign Relations Branch, warned against the new NLD government rushing into dramatic reforms.
But NLD advisor Ko Ni said some reform was inevitable. GAD’s control over the civil service of the states and regions should be broken up and given to the state and region governments instead, he said.
“The control of General Administration Department on all the government procedures is contrary to the federal system and should be abolished,” he told Myanmar Now.
This article was first published by Myanmar Now.