RANGOON — Burma’s recently retired telecommunications minister and former and current employees from his ministry are under investigation for alleged corruption, an official familiar with the case said on Thursday.
The probe into former Minister for Communications, Posts and Telegraphs Thein Tun is the first known case of a Cabinet minister in the civilian government of President Thein Sein being investigated since taking office almost two years ago.
The government announced last week that Thein Tun was being allowed to retired voluntarily. Such announcements that Cabinet minister are being permitted to step down are commonly taken to mean they were forced to quit.
Thein Tun, a former major-general and deputy telecoms minister under the previous military regime, took the same post in Thein Sein’s elected government.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to release information to the media, said more than a dozen ministry officials including engineers are being probed in connection with allegations of graft.
Deputy Information Minister and Presidential Spokesman Ye Htut confirmed that a probe has been initiated, but did not give details.
“It is true that investigations are being made regarding Myanmar’s telecoms activities but I cannot divulge details because it is an ongoing process,” Ye Htut said in response to an email query.
Thein Sein in early January formed a high-level anti-corruption team to pursue his stated goal of clean government.
The anti-corruption group Transparency International says Burma is seen as one of the world’s most corrupt countries, ranking 172nd out of 176. Business tycoons have entrenched themselves by cutting deals with the country’s former military leaders, and privatization of state resources in the transition to a free market economy has opened up opportunities for graft.
The telecommunications sector is a particularly lucrative sector. The government took a fresh step toward liberalizing its state-dominated telecoms sector by publishing a notice last week inviting investment proposals from local and foreign companies for nationwide telecommunications services.
Numerous foreign companies have established offices in Burma since Thein Sein began to overhaul the economy as sanctions applied by Western governments against the previous military regime have been eased.
Last year, Thein Sein announced a low-cost SIM Card project to sell 30 million cards between 2011 and 2016. Currently, SIM cards are being sold at around $250, a price that is prohibitively expensive for most people and much higher than in neighboring countries.
Due to cronyism and the lack of free competition on Burma’s telecom market, SIM card prices have stayed high for a long time.
In the late 1990s, a company affiliated with the family members of former Burmese dictator Ne Win first introduced a GSM network in Burma, selling SIM cards at around $3,300. Later, the Ministry of Communications collaborated with companies owned by Burmese tycoon Tay Za, who has been blacklisted by US and European Union sanctions for his ties to the former military regime.
For Thein Sein’s new SIM card project, the Ministry of Communications has reached agreements to work with 23 local companies. Some of the firms have close ties to the country’s former military regime, such as E-Lite Tech, owned by Tay Za, and IGE Company, which is run by the sons of Minister of Industry Aung Thaung.
Since taking office in March 2011, Thein Sein has introduced a wave of new freedoms and democratic reforms that have opened the country to the outside world after a half-century of military rule.
In a speech in late December, he voiced rare public criticism of the bureaucracy, saying rampant corruption, bribery and inefficiency were getting in the way of the reform process and that Myanmar still falls short of international norms in good governance.
In another sign of change in a country where tight censorship and controls on the Internet used to be the norm, copies of documents purporting to show evidence of possible financial wrongdoing by Thein Tun began being posted on several websites soon after he was removed from office. The documents carried dates from February and April last year, and indicated alleged large bank transfers to the minister.
The origin and authenticity of the documents could not be independently confirmed.