Managing Change: Report on Executive Policymaking in Myanmar sponsored by Asia Foundation

In 2011, Myanmar entered a phase of democratic transition. As the country emerges from decades of authoritarianism, ethnic armed conflict, contentious civil-military relations, and entrenched poverty, it has a remarkable opportunity to move toward democracy, sustained economic development, and lasting peace. Successfully managing the transition requires more effective policymaking. This report provides an introduction to policymaking in Myanmar. It focuses on policymaking by the executive branch of the Union government in Nay Pyi Taw, rather than within the bureaucracy or out in the states and regions. Its primary goal is to frame a stronger discourse on how policymaking actors and processes in the country can be strengthened.

Policy is generally understood as what government officials choose to do, or not to do, about public problems. Executive policymaking refers to the decisions, commitments, and actions of the senior-most government leaders, particularly those of the executive branch centered around the head of state. A useful concept for understanding executive policymaking is that of the “core executive,” which comprises the organizations and structures that primarily serve to pull together and integrate central government policies or act as final arbiters within the executive if conflicts arise between different elements of government.

Following independence in January 1948, Burma’s government evolved from British colonial rule into a United Kingdom–style state governed via elections and parliaments, with a core executive led by a prime minister. Following the 1962 coup, a military regime embracing socialism took over. This regime lasted until 1988 and had a core executive structured around the BSPP and General Ne Win. Following the 1988 coup, a subsequent SLORC/SPDC military regime established rule by a junta, with a core executive built around generals Saw Maung and Than Shwe. This history represents a stark reality for Myanmar: the country does not have a history of policymaking that is particularly conducive to its current transition towards democracy, with its need for pluralism, transparency, and accountability. Myanmar’s history for nearly 50 years was defined by military dictatorship, and the core executives of the RC/BSPP and SLORC/SPDC regimes can best be understood as “one-man policy coordination.” A debilitating legacy for Myanmar’s contemporary governments is the lack of traditions or government architecture that support more sophisticated policymaking.

After decades of dictatorship, and with the resultant lack of traditions, structures, and processes to support pluralistic policymaking, Myanmar must now define what policymaking should look like in the country as it evolves towards full democracy and economic growth. Although the 2008 constitution contains authoritarian elements, it also allows for significant departures from the governance practices of previous military regimes, including basic approaches to policymaking. Most obviously, there are provisions for elections, an executive branch led by a president, and two houses of parliament. The 2008 constitution defines certain roles and responsibilities for the most powerful government actors—the executive and legislative branches and the Tatmadaw. How these actors interact within the parameters of the 2008 constitution, and their respective interpretations of it, is the most important dynamic shaping policymaking in the country. Most significantly, the highest decision-making power over security matters is still vested in the Tatmadaw.

The composition and functioning of Myanmar’s core executive changed significantly during the five years of the USDP government (2011–2016). Transitioning from a military junta towards democracy required significant structural changes to align with the parameters of the 2008 constitution. From 2011 onwards, Myanmar’s core executive was once again led by a civilian executive, the president, defined by a constitution and with a cabinet of ministers officially mandated to make policy decisions. A national, bicameral parliament was created, with small but growing powers, and political parties were permitted. The NLD participated in by-elections in 2012; amnesty was granted to most political prisoners; strict media censorship was lifted; and labor associations were allowed. The civil service steadily expanded, and the paramount cadre of permanent secretaries was reintroduced in 2015. The majority of the USDP government’s policy decisions were issued through four decision-making channels: (1) the cabinet, (2) the NDSC, (3) President’s Office ministers (the super cabinet ministers) and the Myanmar Peace Centre (MPC), and (4) the President’s Office. These changes represent U Thein Sein’s effort to institutionalize the 2008 constitution. However, the 2008 constitution contains significant ambiguities, and it does not specifically define the composition of the executive branch. This created opportunities for some actors to assert more power while simultaneously limiting others. These dynamics certainly created tensions within the USDP’s core executive.

The NLD won the November 2015 election with an outright majority, controlling nearly 80 percent of elected parliamentary seats. The NLD government was officially formed on March 30, 2016. Despite 25 percent of parliamentary seats being reserved for the military, the landslide victory gave the NLD enough seats to select the president and to form a government on their own. However, article 59(f) of the 2008 constitution prohibits individuals with foreign family members from holding the presidency. In response, the NLD government created the position of “state counsellor” for party leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Given the NLD’s super-majority in parliament and the iconic political status of “the Lady” in Myanmar, the executive and legislative branches are now in effect operating under the leadership of the state counsellor. This means the state counsellor is the de facto leader of the country, and it is widely understood that all the important decisions are made by her and through her office. Considering these developments, the tensions and complexities surrounding this new post of state counsellor have become crucial factors in executive policymaking. Most significantly, these tensions involve the relationship between the NLD government and the Tatmadaw, especially the latter’s emphasis on the 2008 constitution and the prominence it gives to the presidency. How these tensions over conflicting interpretations of the 2008 constitution evolve will shape the policy outcomes achieved by the NLD government and determine how the country’s political settlement eventually plays out. The more mundane aspects of policymaking, such as technical capacity, bureaucratic structures, and information sharing, are overshadowed by significant questions of constitutional reform, democratization, and civil- military relations.

While a long-term political settlement will still require major structural reforms—including the clarification of “democratic-federalism” governance structures and civil-military relations and, ultimately, constitutional reform—practical steps can improve policymaking in the near term. Conceptual frameworks such as the Policy Circle Model and the Policy Coordination Scale can sharpen the understanding of Myanmar’s policymaking processes and actors, useful to helping the government and development partners strengthen policymaking in the country. The Policy Circle Model allows for a comprehensive articulation of the policymaking process from beginning to end. By applying this model, practitioners in Myanmar can analyze the strengths and weaknesses of Myanmar’s contemporary policymaking efforts, such as how an issue is chosen for policy debate or reform, how government in turn weighs options to address the issue, what formal and informal mechanisms exist to push the issue through the policymaking process, and how policy decisions are ultimately made. Types of policy coordination vary widely, and a useful articulation of this is found in the Policy Coordination Scale, which ranks the different types of coordination capacity of a national government. The lower levels of the nine-point coordination scale represent what might be called the “simpler” competencies, such as the capacity of individual ministries to make simple decisions, while the upper levels of the scale represent the ability of government to direct and manage coherent national strategies. Although somewhat idealized, the scale gives a sense of the types of policy coordination that can be found in a national government.

In conclusion, executive policymaking in Myanmar should be understood on two axes: (1) the parameters of the 2008 constitution that define the civil-military relationship, and (2) the mechanisms of the state more broadly that already exist, and that could be improved without major constitutional reforms.

Though challenging, improvements to Myanmar’s policymaking processes are not impossible. While some changes will have to wait for significant constitutional reform, much can be achieved through improvements to existing structures and processes, with an emphasis on stronger institutionalization. Priorities for government action to strengthen policymaking could include the following:

  1. Establish better policymaking as an explicit core-executive priority to strengthen policymaking actors and processes. Commission technical studies to assess how this might best be done. Engage development partners to support
  2. Prioritize making existing bodies and processes more effective, such as cabinet meetings and the cabinet
  3. Better articulate and communicate government reform goals, to allow for improved coordination and delegation within government and to garner support and input from civil society and the
  4. Strengthen the bureaucracy to make it more supportive of policymaking—for example, by empowering permanent secretaries and key units of the ministries, such as research units, to play stronger roles throughout the policy circle. Socialize both senior leaders and civil servants to be more proactive and assertive in pushing positive change rather than waiting for top-down
  5. Use better, more comprehensive data to support evidence-based policymaking. This means expanding sources of data to include nonstate media and civil society, and encouraging analysis rather than just the reporting of data within the
  6. Diversify the actors involved in policymaking—for example, by encouraging inputs from policy institutes, development partners, and civil Solicit more routine policy feedback from state/ region governments.
  7. Make more effective use of “reform enablers,” including both empowered and technically competent ministers and other senior government leaders as well as senior technical advisors, to initiate and drive
  8. Consider whether dedicated “coordination ministers” may be useful to catalyze and coordinate reform across priority sectors like the economy, the peace process, local government, and key social services.

Source: Asia Foundation


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