A last-minute proposal by President U Thein Sein to bring the Ministry of Immigration under the wing of the military-controlled Ministry of Home Affairs ran into opposition yesterday from the National League for Democracy, which says the merger would deprive the party of a key post in the next government.
The president sent a letter to Speaker Thura U Shwe Mann on January 22 asking him to seek approval from the Union parliament for the merger of the two ministries. It was not clear why such an important step was only proposed five working days before the last session of the current parliament.
U Thein Sein, a former general, justified the move by saying that a Department of Immigration and Population under the Home Affairs Ministry would lead to more efficient immigration and citizenship processes and data collection for a national census, reduce expenses, and take more effective measures on national security and border security.
The president said the merger would enhance the rule of law and peace and stability and would enable the government to control illegal migrants entering the country as well as provide more services for citizens.
The Speaker, who lost out in an internal party power struggle to the president last August, passed the issue to the Union Parliament Joint Bill Committee, comprised of members of parliament representing all parties.
In a meeting of the committee yesterday most MPs – but not those from the NLD – agreed to combine the two ministries. But they did not agree to approve it within such a short period. The current parliament will complete its work on January 29 before the new parliament, dominated by NLD delegates elected in last November’s landslide victory, convenes on February 1.
Currently the Ministry of Immigration and Population comes under the president, whereas Home Affairs is one of three ministries controlled directly by the military which, under the former junta, ensured that it would keep a firm grip on key government posts in future power-sharing arrangements.
Immigration has been a hot issue during U Thein Sein’s five-year term which expires on March 30 when the new NLD-led government will take over. More than 100,000 stateless Rohingya Muslims are confined to camps in Rakhine State awaiting citizenship scrutiny by the government, which regards many of them as illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh and labels them Bengalis.
“We voted against when a vote was taken [in the Union Parliament Joint Bill Committee],” said U Zaw Myint Maung from the NLD. He declined to elaborate.
U Aung Maung, a representative of the Arakan National Party, supports combining the two ministries and suggested it should be approved before the end of the current government’s term.
“I agreed to combine the two because the tasks of the Ministry of Immigration and Population are very important for national security and related to the tasks of the ministries of Home Affairs and Defence. We strongly believe that we [the Rakhine people] would feel safer if the military handles the tasks of controlling illegal migrants and issuing citizenship,” said U Aye Maung.
He also said that the NLD would not be able to handle immigration problems in Rakhine State as it was a very sensitive and complicated issue. “I think they should give up it instead of facing challenges,” said U Aye Maung.
U Phone Myint Aung, an independent MP, said he voted for the proposal but was against approving it within this week.
“When the bill committee took a vote all agreed, apart from the NLD. We proposed that the issue would be decided in the Union Parliament by submitting a proposal, but we think it should not be approved by this parliament, because we have only three days left,” said U Phone Myint Aung.
Discussions are expected to continue in parliament today.