In a dramatic redrafting of local governance, the Ministry of Home Affairs has agreed to at least partially relinquish control of the police, the Bureau of Special Investigations, the Fire Service Department, the Prison Department and the General Administration Department (GAD).

The exact delineation of the power-sharing arrangement with civilian administration remains vague, however.

In an official letter issued last week to state and region chief ministers, Minister of Home Affairs Lieutenant General Kyaw Swe said the local governments could take control of the management of the five departments.

However, Daw Lei Lei Maw, chief minister of Tanintharyi Region, said the letter does not include specific details on the governance strategy, but only alludes to better coordination and cooperation of the key departments with the local governments.

“When we met with Ko Kyaw Swe in a meeting for the emergency management committee on August 3, he asked us to work toward a close working relationship with the departments,” she said.

“He asked us to take action against those officials who commit wrong-doing, and to reward those who perform above and beyond their duties,” she said.

She added that her understanding was that the departments would remain under the umbrella of the ministry, and by extension, the military.

The minister for home affairs, along with the ministers for defence and border affairs, is appointed by the commander-in-chief of Defence Services. Political analysts and international observers often refer to the constitutionally guaranteed appointments as an “undemocratic” hold-out against fully civilian administration.

The five departments, with their top-to-bottom hierarchical structures, have long been subject to criticisms for an ingrained system of bribery and corruption. Most of the senior management officials at the departments were cherry-picked from Defence Services.

Under the junta, the Police Force and the Prison Department earned the reputation and image of being “thugs” under the thumb of the military regime and deployed to suppress political dissidents.

U Maung Maung Myint, an assistant secretary at the Ministry of Home Affairs, said the involvement of local government in the five departments was “not new”. He alleged that the 2008 constitution assigns civilian leadership to the Home Affairs departments.

Quoting section 260 of the military drafted charter, he said the civilian chief ministers in states and regions freely manage the five departments.

“The Head of the General Administration Department of the Region or State is the ex-officio Secretary of the Region or State Government concerned. Moreover, the GAD of the Region or State is the Office of the Region or State Government concerned,” the constitution section reads.

While the constitutional provision does grant states and regions some control, it does not describe the extent to which civilian chief ministers could order and manage the departments.

Sharing from her own perspectives, Daw Lei Lei Maw described the Home Affairs Ministry’s recent statement as a “necessity” in order to promote cooperation between the democratically elected government and the military-controlled administrative organs.

The constitution should later be changed to guarantee the civilian control of the departments, she said.

Ma Thinzar Shun Lei Yi, an advocacy coordinator at the Action Committee for Democracy Development which has been pushing for the reform of the Ward and Village Tract Administration Law, said there should be bolder changes to secure civilian administration.

Local administration largely falls to the ubiquitous General Administration Department, which remains housed under the military-controlled Home Affairs Ministry.

“Since the department heads are former military officers, they tend to obey the instructions and orders issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs, rather than the [state and region] civilian administration. We will have to wait and see whether this handover of the management of the five departments is a good thing,” she said.

During her visit at the end of June, UN special rapporteur on human rights for Myanmar Yanghee Lee said she “observed the very real tension between a new civilian leadership and a bureaucracy inherited from previous military regimes which often resulted in a duality in policy and approach”.

Ma Thinzar Shun Lei Yi said that the recent uptick in former military personnel appointed to government departments makes it hard to harmonise between civilian and military administrations.

She said through her visits to the state and regional governments for work on the Ward and Village Tract Administration Law, she learned that departments in only few states and regions take up their mandate to be involved in the local administration.

“This has created some conflict among the civilian and military officials,” she said.

According to U Ye Naing, a director at the GAD’s headquarters in Nay Pyi Taw, the budgets for the state and region branches of the five departments are culled from the state and region government coffers.

The Ministry of Home Affairs’ budget supports only the cost for the operations of the GAD’s headquarters in Nay Pyi Taw, covering issues such as “land management, the affairs of associations such as their registration and the laws, the handling liquors and alcohols, taxes”. He said the headquarters is not involved in the administration of the state and region branches.

U Myat Thu, chair of the Yangon School of Political Science, praised the explicit shift of the five departments to more civilian control.

“It is important to recall that even the Tatmadaw should one day be brought under civilian control,” he said.

He added that civilian control of local administration does not automatically equate with “good governance”, but would have to be an evolving process.

“Since they have to work under a civilian elected official who has to take responsibility and accountability in governing, they will have to become more responsible and accountable than before,” U Myat Thu said.

He added that the recent overhauls of the top-level cabinet positions will not lead to any dramatic changes since most of the bureaucrats operating the government departments remain the same.

Without restructuring more than the superficial, top-level appointments, changes will not happen overnight, he said.