The Irrawaddy

Assessing the Government’s Stepped-up Fight Against Corruption

Kyaw Zwa Moe: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week we discuss corruption, which is one of the most serious concerns facing our country. A country can only ensure clean government and good governance, attract more foreign investment and enhance its image when free of corruption. But corruption is deeply rooted in our country. The newly elected president [U Win Myint] has vowed to put greater efforts into fighting corruption. What are the challenges and how far has the government come in tackling corruption in Myanmar? Political analyst Dr. Yan Myo Thein and Ko Ye Ni, editor of The Irrawaddy Burmese Edition join me to discuss this. I’m Kyaw Zwa Moe, editor of The Irrawaddy English Edition.

As you know, the new president has focused on combating corruption since he took office. The first government agency he met with as president was the Anti-Corruption Commission. And he talked about taking a tougher stance on corruption at the meeting. The commission said it is investigating 18 cases including some involving high-ranking government officials. They seem to be walking the walk. Ko Yan Myo Thein, what is your assessment of the commission? Do you think it will be successful?

Yan Myo Thein: Corruption is an enormous challenge to the democratization of our country. It continues to take place in countries like China, where the death penalty is being imposed for bribery. Only when we make an all-out effort to fight corruption will we be able to bring about clean government and good governance in our country, which is regarded as one of the most corrupt in the world. When we speak of fighting corruption, it is not enough to discipline and dismiss the “flies”—the lower-level staff. There is also a need to investigate and take action against the “tigers”—the high-ranking officials in the government, Parliament, the Tatmadaw [Myanmar’s military] and the ruling party. If strong action can be taken against corrupt officials on a wide scale, the government will become cleaner and better administered, and win greater trust and support from the people.

KZM: Generally speaking, it is necessary for every country. Ko Ye Ni, the president said in his speech that decisive action would be taken against corrupt officials of any rank, without favor. The Anti-Corruption Commission said it had received over 1,700 complaints in the three months since January, and most of them were filed against the Home Affairs Ministry, followed by judicial staff. Judicial staff in fact must be clean and upright, but it is just the reverse in Myanmar. Ko Ye Ni, to what extent do you think the government will be able to handle corruption among civil servants? What else would you like to point out?

Ye Ni: Corruption is entrenched in our country. It is fair to say that it is rooted like cancer. It has spread to every department. No matter which government is in office, it has a responsibility to fight corruption. Any government, whether it was elected or seized power, operates a civil service that functions with tax or public funds. So, it is obliged to fight corruption. As Ko Yan Myo Thein has pointed out, the Anti-Corruption Commission has only been able to take action against lower-level staff and not higher-level ones. It has hardly caught any big fish, to put it in the words of [economist] U Myint.

KZM: This is a huge challenge not only for the government, but also for the people. The Anti-Corruption Law was enacted in 2013, but retrospective complaints can’t be filed under that law. Lately, we’ve heard about a high-profile case in which Food and Drug Administration Director General Dr. Than Htut was arrested and sued. This came as a warning bell to many civil servants, especially corrupt officials. According to Transparency International, our country is ranked at around 130th out of 180 countries. So, corruption is rife here. Ko Yan Myo Thein, you said China imposes harsh penalties for corruption. But harsh penalties don’t always serve as a deterrent. How tough should the penalties imposed in our country be?

YMT: There is a need to expand education programs on corruption, I think. The government should educate, warn and punish step by step. At the national level, there is a need to educate people about corruption starting at primary school. The government should conduct anti-corruption campaigns as a national movement with public participation. In particular, it should focus on educating civil servants. Civil servants need to know clearly which actions amount to corruption. And we should study the living expenses of civil servants. The government should think about how it can reduce their household expenses burden. The government has recently increased salaries for civil servants. But what about giving them other allowances and annual bonuses, rather than increasing their pay, in order to reduce this burden? Firstly, fighting corruption requires public participation. Secondly, it requires educating civil servants on a wide scale.

KZM: After the new government took office, a company paid graft to an official in the President’s Office. The money was given back to the company. Ko Ye Ni, what do you want to say about those who pay bribes? Some businessmen, even the majority of businessmen, have had to bribe authorities to win contracts for business projects in the past. Does that practice still exist?

YN: Not only in Myanmar, but also in countries across the world, businessmen try to curry favor with concerned authorities to win contracts. This has led to an argument over business ethics. Before we argue over the morality of that practice, the majority of businessmen do not hesitate to pay “grease money”.

KZM: It is not ethical. That practice still exists in Myanmar.

YMT: My view is that action should be taken against both the giver and receiver of a bribe. As you have mentioned, a company gave graft to an official soon after the new government took office. And the government returned the money and announced this in a press release. Giving back the money is not enough; I think the government should investigate. Again, when ministers and high-ranking officials of the government step down from their positions, government press releases always say that they are resigning of their own volition. But I think the government should investigate and make public the reasons behind their resignations, and so should the Anti-Corruption Commission. As Ko Ye Ni has said, civil servants—in the government, Parliament or Tatmadaw—operate with public funds, so it is important that people have access to all the information.

YN: I would like to point out an important point here. Whistle-blowers and insiders are important in exposing corruption. In a recent seizure of smuggled teak in Kyaukse [in Mandalay Region], police exposed the case with the help of colleagues who came forward with a sense of duty. The government should provide legal protection for such people.

YMT: And the government should also honor them.

YN: Yes, it should.

KZM: Both the president and the Anti-Commission Corruption have said that greater cooperation with the media is required in fighting corruption, and that investigations should be made when media reports about corruption appear. Lawmaker U Aung Kyi Nyunt of the ruling National League for Democracy once said that the party faced three dangers. One is the risk of party officials being bought by businessmen. It is important that senior party officials and senior government officials are not bought by businessmen, he said. Have you noticed any official being bought? We don’t see media reports about such cases; the media is not supposed to make such reports without confirmation.

YMT: Yes, it is difficult for the media to report on such cases. But according to rumors and reports on social media, for example, lawmakers are always attending opening ceremonies [like road and bridge opening ceremonies and companies’ product-launching ceremonies]. It is important that lawmakers stay close to the people. They need to stay close to the people on the ground who voted for them. But [instead] they stay close to businessmen and attend their functions, and eat their lunches and dinners, and it becomes a weakness that people may find fault with. The ruling party should impose strict rules to control this, and take strict action against those who break the rule. The party should also inform the public about its punitive actions against law-breaking members. Again, I think the ruling party should set an example by exercising iron discipline among its members. Then, other parts of the [state] mechanism will pay greater heed to fighting corruption.

KZM: We are witnessing the NLD-led government take steps to fight corruption two years after taking office. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi jokingly said after her government took office that she would visit her cabinet members in prison if they were corrupt. So members of her party need to be careful. The Anti-Corruption Commission said it is investigating 18 cases. We will wait and see what happens and how effectively the commission can tackle corruption. Thank you for your contributions!