One positive development given the political changes in Myanmar since 2011 is that empirical research is now possible to a much greater extent than in the past. One recent example of this is an empirical study on state and region governments conducted by a team of researchers from MDRI-CESD in partnership with the Asia Foundation. The report, entitled State and Region Governments in Myanmar, addresses a previously unknown topic in terms of how local governance and administration works, and how, if at all, this has changed in the post-2011 era.
The report is based on research conducted in four of the seven states and two of the seven regions, namely Karen, Mon, Shan and Chin State, and Tanintharyi and Ayeyarwady Region. The research included interviews with over 70 officials in these areas. The report is rich in details and thorough in scope. Here is a snapshot of a few key points that the report makes:
The Composition of State and Region Governments
First, the report emphasis that state/region governments are very recent developments in Myanmar, and most have not passed any laws to date (although note this month’s Law Gazette appears to suggest that this will soon change with the proposal of several state/region laws).
In terms of representation, the figures on women in local governance are low, with only 4 women cabinet ministers across all states/regions (p 56).
The disjuncture between state/region departments and ministerial portfolios is striking. As the report highlights: ‘While there are state and region ministers, there are, as yet, no state and region ministries for them to lead’ (p 26). They explain that the reason for this is because ‘they are pre-existing departments within the centralised ministerial structure of Myanmar that have been nominally placed under state/region authority’ (p 25).
The General Administration Department
The report provides vital information on the central role of the General Administration Department, which was established in 1988 when the military took over as part of its strategy to control all levels of governance and administration. The report describes the GAD as ‘the bureaucratic core of the subnational state structure’ (p 33), and emphasises the pivotal role that it plays in terms of village administration.
On the state/region courts, the report finds that general attitudes towards the judiciary and the courts was ‘highly dismissive’ (p 62).
Importance of Townships
The report briefly refers to the importance of townships in terms of the role township officials play in terms of land registration, taxation, birth registration and so on (p 9). It appears that township governance will be the topic of a future report.
One caveat is that the report only focuses on official state government, although the report does admit that it is limited in its scope because it essentially does not consider legal pluralism, that is, whether there are any existing forms of customary law or other governance structures beyond the state (p 7).
Overall, this report provides an excellent starting point for empirical research on local governance and begins to fill the gaps in our understanding of the form and shape of local governance in Myanmar.