Last week, Progressive Voice and Action Committee for Democracy Development (ACDD) released a briefing paper outlining how local level democracy is restricted by legislation that excludes portions of the population and extends the centralized control that the Myanmar Army has over the day-to-day administration of Myanmar. The briefing paper outlines problematic sections of the Ward or Village Tract Administration Law that was promulgated in 2012. While it has since been amended three times, after local civil society mobilized and advocated for progress, more work needs to be done. Amending the Ward or Village Tract Administration Law, can not only strengthen participation in local democracy and make local officials accountable to the people, it can also serve as part of reform of the country so that it can better protect ethnic and religious minorities who have been the victims of religious discrimination with this law as a tool.
The law outlines how Ward or Village Tract Administrators are elected, and the powers they have, as well as who they are ultimately accountable to. The law is extremely important, as the briefing paper, ‘Grassroots Democracy: Analysis of the Ward or Village Tract Administration Law,’ states, it “is the main link between communities and the state, increasingly play[ing] a key role in local development as it constitutes the most local level of the administration.”
One problematic areas is that of exclusion. For example, the law restricts voting to those who are heads of households. Not only does this exclude large parts of the population from being able to vote, but it does not account for gender inclusion and the role of women as household heads tend to be male. Furthermore, candidates must be at least 25 years old – thus excluding youth candidates – and must be persons whose family members are “persons in good morality, simple and honest,” – terms that are difficult to measure or verify and thus open to arbitrary interpretation.
Going beyond some of these more technical aspects of the law, there are problems regarding broader institutions and structures that govern and administer the country. The law comes under the remit of the General Administration Department (GAD) which is under the military-controlled Ministry of Home Affairs. Ward or Village Tract administrators are accountable to the GAD-appointed Township Administrators, and thus the military has ultimate control over the day-to-day governance and administration of wards and village tracts. As Ye Min Naung of ACDD expressed at the launch of the paper, “The local administrators touch the daily life of all civilians and must be accountable to the community they represent, not nodding and working for the unelected, GAD-appointed Township Administrators who remain under the service of the military appointed Ministry of Home Affairs. For this, the Constitution must also be amended.” Not only must reform coincide with reducing the power of the military, but also decentralization, as ultimate power is with the central Ministry of Home Affairs. As the briefing paper points out, “It must be part of a broader reform process that devolves power and establishes a federal, democratic system of governance that empowers ethnic nationalities and ensures equal power sharing.”
In practice, the use of this law to target and restrict the rights of religious minorities can be seen in the prohibition of religious prayers in the Muslim community of Thaketa Township, Yangon. As reported by Burma Human Rights Network (BHRN), seven Muslims were sentenced to one month in jail on 30 April, 2018 – thus cruelly coinciding in part with the holy month of Ramadan – for organizing prayers in the street last year after two local Madrassas had been sealed off due to pressure from Buddhist ultranationalists. They were charged under the Ward or Village Tract Administration Law, which gives the local administrator the power to file charges against anyone organizing ceremonies, events, etc without obtaining permission from the Ward or Village Tract Administrator. Kyaw Win, Executive Director of the BHRN put it succinctly, “These men were denied a place to worship by the authorities intentionally trying to prohibit their religious freedoms.”
The Ward or Village Tract Administration Law plays a vital role in the day-to-day lives of communities in Myanmar and the positions of Ward or Village Tract Administrators that this law mandates are ultimately accountable to the Myanmar Army. As shown above with the prison sentence given to those who carried out prayers during Ramadan in Thaketa Township, Yangon, last year, it can have very real and significant effects on people’s lives, particularly of ethnic and religious minorities. These effects are experienced and lived at a more tangible level than broad and sometimes vague rallying calls for ‘rule of law’ and ‘democracy.’ Yet it is these everyday tangible reforms that can contribute and shape what ‘rule of law’ and ‘democracy’ look like, and as such, civil society’s efforts at transforming grassroots democracy at the village tract and ward level is a vital process of democracy-building that must be recognized and supported.
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Progressive Voice is a participatory, rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 transitioning to a rights-based policy research and advocacy organization called Progressive Voice. For further information, please see our press release “Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice.”