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02 June 2023

Myanmar MPs tackle first budget in decades


Myanmar's fledgling parliament is slaving over its first budget, a daunting task for the inexperienced body in a country where the army has long been used to dipping into state coffers at will.

It has been almost a year since Myanmar, after decades of military rule, embarked on a political transition with a new nominally civilian government.

For the novice lawmakers in the nation's twin-chamber parliament -- dominated by soldiers and former military personnel -- that means once impenetrable dossiers are now open to fierce debate.

"We have a broad framework but it is very complex," said Aung Tun Thet, an adviser to the United Nations in Yangon, referring to the draft budget prepared by President Thein Sein's government in December.

During the long era of successive juntas, the budget was prepared by the government alone.

"There was no assessment, no discussion, no dialogue. Now for the first time in many, many years, we have a chance to discuss the budget and its priorities," Aung Tun Thet told AFP.

"It's a very refreshing step forward," he added. "It's a demonstration of the checks and balances between the legislative and the executive."

Although the army-backed ruling party holds an overwhelming majority, lawmakers have embraced their new-found power -- debating laws, voting and shuttling bills between the two chambers.

Some of the spending plans will surely please the West. According to the Ministry of Planning and Development, the plan is to double the education budget and spend four times as much on health as in the last fiscal year.

It would be a welcome change. Myanmar has a record of committing just $7 (Dh25.7) per year per person to healthcare, a mere 1.8 percent of the total budget, one of the lowest health spending rates in the world according to a 2009 UN report.

But the government is also seeking to spend 15.33 percent of the budget on the armed forces.

"We cannot agree on what they asked for," an opposition lower house member, speaking on condition of anonymity, said of the military spending request, accusing the government of comparing Myanmar with neighbouring countries "that are developed whereas we are not".

"We cannot talk about it openly now as it's a sensitive matter to discuss," he told AFP.

If the draft budget is approved, the army's slice would officially rise 50 percent to ê2.35 billion compared to the previous year.

But debates are made even more difficult because the earlier budgets were never published, de facto considered as state secrets.

Aye Maung, an upper house representative and chairman of the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP), one of Myanmar's ethnic-based political parties, said he was ready to approve the request for more military spending.

"We can accept it. But we don't know whether this number is realistic or not as we don't know the previous budget."

In 2009, defence intelligence organisation Jane's Sentinel estimated the army budget to be around $1.5 bn (Dh5.5bn).

"It is unlikely that even Myanmar's military government can accurately calculate the full cost of the country's armed forces," it added in its annual report.

Experts concur that the army helped itself to the country's funds for nearly half a century, notably profiting from a wide portion of the oil revenues.

Several of the highest-ranking officers belonging to the former junta, which relinquished power last March, consequently had their assets frozen under Western sanctions.

But cheerleaders of Myanmar's recent reform efforts promise the army will not be given free reign in this year's budget.

Toe Naing Mann, son of former junta number-three turned lower house speaker Shwe Mann, is one of them.

"The chief of the army does not want to participate in politics," he said about General Min Aung Hlain, who is one year into his new job.

He said the military budget was quite high relative to Gross Domestic Product, but still rather low in real terms.

"Now, we can proceed with a revolution of military affairs," he said. "We have to reduce armed forces, from quantity to quality."

The money discussions are expected to last a few more weeks. The result will be the first budget debated in parliament since the first post-colonial military coup in 1962.

The discussion "provides a historic opportunity to redefine national spending priorities and bring fiscal transparency," said Meral Karasulu, who headed an International Monetary Fund mission to Myanmar last month.

She welcomed the apparent willingness to boost health and education, and the prediction of a "moderate" fiscal deficit of about 4.6 percent of GDP, slightly down from last year.

"A prudent fiscal policy is essential to maintain macroeconomic stability," she said.