Burma Public Sector Ranked Among Most Corrupt in Asia

By Paul Vrieze 3 December 2014

RANGOON — An annual global survey by watchdog Transparency International said Burma remains one of the worst countries in Southeast Asia for public sector graft and ranked it as the 19th most corrupt country in the world.

The Berlin-based organization put Burma 156 out of 174 countries surveyed for its Corruption Perceptions Index 2014, a one spot improvement compared to last year’s ranking.

From 2012 to 2013, Burma moved up a significant number of places, rising from 172 to 157, as a result of the government reforms that President Thein Sein’s nominally civilian administration has implemented since taking office in 2011, steps that ostensibly included improving government transparency and tackling graft.

This year’s ranking, however, represented only a marginal improvement and Burma scored 21 on the index, which gives countries scores between 0 (perceived as highly corrupt) and 100 (very clean). Its score made Burma the worst performer in Southeast Asia, together with Cambodia (21).

Neighbors Bangladesh (25), Laos (25) and Thailand (38) fared better. In the rest of Asia, only Afghanistan (12) and North Korea (8) scored lower than Burma.

Transparency International rankings are based on experts’ opinions of public sector corruption and take into account the level of access to information on corruption, the accountability of public bodies and the rules that a country has in place to govern the behavior of public officials.

Samantha Grant, the organization’s Southeast Asia program coordinator, said the Burmese government had taken notable steps to tackle graft in recent years, but added, “While the initial introduction of reforms increased the belief that corruption was being reduced, this has somewhat leveled out… there is still much to be done.

“This includes improvements in anti-corruption legal framework, a reform on procurement system, effective and independent law enforcement agencies and genuine participation of civil society and the media,” Grant told The Irrawaddy. She added that strengthening the anti-corruption committee’s independence, reducing police and judicial system corruption, and increasing government transparency would also be key.

Burma has long been plagued by public sector corruption on all levels, ranging from citizens paying bribes for basic services, a corrupted judicial system and massive losses of revenues generated from the exploitation of natural resources, such as timber, jade, oil and gas. To this day, crony businessmen linked to the former junta dominate the economy.

The country’s northeastern region is the largest drug-producing hub in East and Southeast Asia, and local authorities are complicit in the production of huge amounts of opium, heroin and amphetamines.

A survey released in May, carried out by the United Nations, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry, found that graft was the single biggest problem for firms operating in Burma, with 20 percent of more than 3,000 firms questioned saying it was a “very severe obstacle” to their business.

Anti-Corruption Measures

The Thein Sein government has taken steps to address corruption in recent years, but these have offered mixed results.

Parliament passed anti-corruption laws last year and appointed an anti-graft commission in February. In September, however, lawmakers criticized the body over the fact that it investigated only three out of 530 complaints it had received. They said the commission lacked independence from the executive and was reluctant to investigate deep-rooted graft in departmental and higher levels of administration.

Most of the complaints filed with the commission pertained to maladministration, land matters, and legal and judicial issues.

In July, Burma became a candidate country for the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), a global anti-corruption scheme that requires countries to follow rules on publishing oil, gas and mining project payments. The government, companies and civil society groups are currently drafting up mechanisms to implement the scheme.

Natural resource revenue watchdog Global Witness said in a blog post on Tuesday that EITI candidacy is a significant step, but noted that the government’s commitment to tackling corruption would be tested when it begins to reform Burma’s most valuable resource sector, jade mining, a multi-billion dollar industry that is marred by “deeply entrenched patterns of secrecy, corruption and military control.”

“There is almost no public data on which companies hold mining licenses, who those companies’ real owners are, what the terms of their contracts are, what they are paying the government, and what they are producing. The public disclosure of all of these data is either a requirement or a recommendation of the EITI scheme,” the London-based group said.

“[S]ystemic corruption amongst military and civilian officials facilitates the elaborate smuggling networks that convey much of the jade straight over the border into China,” it said, adding that control over the mines is the main driver of the ongoing war in northern Burma between the Burma Army and the Kachin rebels.

This story was updated with additional quotes on Dec. 4, 2014.