The recent elections for ward and village tract administrators should have been an exercise in local-level participatory democracy. Yet flaws in the law that mandates these elections – the Ward or Village Tract Administration Law – means that this opportunity has been lost. Before the next round of elections, and while the National League for Democracy still has overwhelming power in the legislature, amendments must be made that make the law and the elections more inclusive and accessible for grassroots communities.
The General Administration Department (GAD), which is still in the hands of the military-controlled Ministry of Home Affairs, has disproportionate influence over the elected officials of wards and village tracts. This not only extends the military’s reach, but also centralizes control over administration when we as a country are striving for a decentralized federal system of governance. For example, the ultimate authority on the formation of the supervisory board that oversees the election of the Ward/Village Tract Administrator is the Township Administrator – who is unelected and appointed directly by the GAD. Also, within the Ward or Village Tract Administration Law there is the existence of the GAD-appointed Ward or Village Clerk, whose position is unelected, permanent and influential. Township Administrators also have the power to dismiss Ward or Village Tract Administrators. Thus, Ward or Village Tract Administrators are accountable not to the people, but upwards to Township Administrators and ultimately, to the military.
Regarding the elections, there are problems concerning inclusivity, especially for women and the youth. According to the law, candidates for the position must be at least 25 years old, a provision which excludes a large portion of the country’s youth. In order for a culture of democracy to take root at the local level, young people must be encouraged to participate. Voting is also based on heads of households rather than all adults residing in each household. While this in itself is exclusionary, the tendency towards male household heads in Myanmar means that there are major problems regarding the participation of women in this process.
This law is also significant for the aspirations of ethnic nationalities. The centralization of the administrative structure, under the control of the Myanmar Army, must be addressed in the peace process and a component that institutionalizes this structure is the Ward or Village Tract Administration Law. Of course, this must come as part of broader reforms of the GAD, but by decentralizing administration, including elections of local officials, this devolves power to ethnic groups that have been striving for autonomy and self-determination for decades.
Yet there is hope and there is optimism. Civil society has been mobilizing over the past years through the Coalition on Ward/Village Tract Administration Law Amendment and this has been met with a degree of success. Three rounds of law amendments by Parliament once in 2012 and twice in 2016 has seen the controversial guest registration provision significantly diluted. This is important because in the past it has been used by the military as a tool to control freedom of movement and to surveil political activists. The civil society coalition remains strong and active and will continue to push for more substantive reforms. While the military continues to hold power and assert its dominance over the administrations that affect the day-to-day lives of the people in Myanmar, these activities by civil society can be supported by the Government and MPs to push forward meaningful reforms that leads to a more genuine and inclusive federal democracy.
It is thus vital, in this time of fragile democracy in Myanmar that the transition is not merely an elite-driven process and that communities on the ground can participate, feel a sense of ownership, and ultimately strengthen democracy. For this, it is essential that the GAD be released from the hands of the military controlled Ministry of Home Affairs. Furthermore, even if the Ward or Village Tract Administration Law is amended to be more democratic, it does not necessarily decentralize the administrative structure. Thus, reform of the GAD, and by proxy, the Ward or Village Tract Administration Law, must be part of a broader process that establishes autonomy for ethnic nationalities and also facilitates democracy taking root at the grassroots level through an inclusionary and participatory process to elect officials that are accountable not to the military-dominated center, but to the people on the ground.
Ye Min Naung is an elected overall-coordinator of Action Committee for Democracy Development (ACDD) and Aung Khaing Min is the Executive Director of Progressive Voice