The Irrawaddy

People Expect Decisive Govt Action Against Corruption

Kyaw Zwa Moe: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week, we’ll discuss the talk of the town, which caused public anger. Union Minister of Planning and Finance U Kyaw Win was allowed to resign while being investigated by the Anti-Corruption Commission. People are speculating about the extent of his corruption and appropriate punishment for it. What urgent measures should the National League for Democracy (NLD) government take to better tackle corruption? Ko Aung Thu Nyein, a director at the Institute for Strategy and Policy, and political analyst Dr. Yan Myo Thein join me for the discussion. I’m Kyaw Zwa Moe, editor of The Irrawaddy English edition.

The Anti-Corruption Commission’s investigation of Planning and Finance U Kyaw Win became the talk of the town. On May 27, the commission said the results of the investigation had been reported to the President’s Office and public reports would be made accordingly. U Kyaw Win submitted his resignation and has been allowed to resign. People expect to see the NLD government’s decisive action on corruption. Ko Aung Thu Nyein, what does the NLD government have to do to prove it is a clean government if its ministers have been corrupt?

Aung Thu Nyein: After the 2015 poll, people were proud that their [new] leaders were not corrupt. Recently, newly elected President U Win Myint vowed to fight corruption. People have expectations. At [a meeting at] the UMFCCI [Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry], economist Dr. U Myint called for going after big fish in fighting corruption and not smaller ones, and setting an example by taking a tougher stance on [cabinet] members. This was followed by action taken against a minister. So, the NLD government is starting to fight corruption. But, what is important is the political will. How much are the country’s leaders determined to fight corruption? Will the government adopt a zero-tolerance policy against corruption? If yes, it needs to reaffirm this and continue walking the walk.

KZM: I remember that Daw Aung San Su Kyi said on the campaign trail in Yamethin and Hmawbi before the 2015 election that if her party was elected, it would not tolerate two things: deliberate harming and misappropriation of public funds. She said that she would visit her cabinet members in prison if they were corrupt. We don’t know yet if the finance minister was actually corrupt. But, Ko Yan Myo Thein, what are the important factors in building a clean government?

Yan Myo Thein: The government for the time being should inform the public about the case in a transparent manner. And appropriate action should be taken depending on the result of the investigation. If the government takes a biased approach because ministers are appointed by it, then, it will not win the trust of the people. A government or a political party, if it fights corruption effectively on a wide scale, can win public support.

We need a mechanism that can monitor on a wide scale if government officials, lawmakers and leaders of political parties are free from corruption. And we need a body to monitor if ministers can perform their assigned duties well. Only then, will we know if they work or not and if they meet the targets, not on paper, but on the ground. Then, remedial action can be taken as necessary. There is also a need to inform the public on a wide scale. Rather than talking to the public about what it has done in a particular period, the government should work to make the people feel that it is actually working to reduce the burden on people.

KZM: Ko Aung Thu Nyein, regarding corruption, big fish were not caught under successive governments. The Anti-Corruption Commission was formed [under U Thein Sein’s government] but it barely worked. The NLD government has investigated its minister. It is a good sign and can be interpreted as having political will. It is important to choose the right persons in forming the cabinet. When U Kyaw Win was nominated for the ministerial position [in 2016], many media organizations reported that his doctoral degree was a fake. However, he was appointed to the cabinet. The government has changed some ministers who underperformed, and has nominated U Soe Win for the planning and finance ministry. What criteria do you think the government should develop to get the right candidate?

ATN: According to the practice in the United States, I see two criteria. There is a Senate hearing if a minister is nominated. The nominee is grilled [about his knowledge]. He gets low marks if he can’t answer questions. In our country, a list of the nominees is submitted to Parliament. But it is quick to approve them and there is no hearing like in the US. We also need freedom of the press. In the US, I think while President Obama was in office, the nominee for the secretary of the Department of Treasury was submitted. The US media investigated his background and found that he had evaded taxes. This brought into question his eligibility for the treasury secretary post. Without free media, it is difficult to find out such things. So, my opinion is, Parliament should take time in assessing the eligibility of the nominees. And a free press should also look into it. And parliamentary committees should play a greater part.

KZM: Only then, will there be public debate on the eligibility of elected ministers. As I’ve said, President U Win Myint took office and promised to do things that the government was not able to do over the past two years. It is less than three years until the next election. The NLD might need better policies and better ministers to achieve good results in the next election. There are criticisms that almost all of the ministries are not performing well. There is a capacity problem within the government, even though it has the political will, people have pointed out. Ko Yan Myo Thein, what is your view on this?

YMT: As far as I’ve seen, I’d say the only department whose performance has greatly improved is the Fire Services Department. It has become very popular among the people. Except for the fire services department, we don’t see the striking development of other departments. So, I thought about why. Is it because of the high centralization in the government? If that is the case, how should centralization be reduced?

Under successive governments, from the time of the Myanmar Socialist Program Party government to the SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council) and the SPDC (State Peace and Development Council), there was the problem [of centralization] in that officials only had responsibility but did not have authority. Directors-general only have responsibility but no authority and it is the same for the ministers. If the higher echelons control all of the authority, it will go against the democratization process we are undergoing. Our democratization will be more meaningful only when centralization in the government, in the Parliament, and in political parties including the ruling party is reduced.

KZM: We have talked about the need for NLD appointees to steer clear of corruption. But as everyone knows, our country is one of the lowest-ranking countries regarding corruption. There is corruption not only in government but also in institutions. There was corruption among top officials of successive governments and institutions. We’ve heard reports about their corruption, but we do not have evidence to file complaints. It is very difficult to build a corruption-free society. No society in the world is corruption free. But it is possible to reduce corruption in the government and related institutions. What measures should the current government take to handle corruption? The Anti-Corruption Commission has also started to take action. What else can be done to fight corruption harder?

ATN: First of all, there is a need to differentiate between bureaucracy and politics. Bureaucracy is the civil servants and they will continue to exist no matter which government is in office. They will have duty as well as authority. So there may be corruption and bribery with them. Another part is politicians who are elected at the polls every five years. Some scholars said petty corruption—asking for small amounts of money at government departments—is not a problem for the country. But policy corruption—the corruption of high-ranking officials—is a problem. We want the government to focus more on policy corruption.

KZM: With high-ranking officials, you mean ministers…

ATN: Yes, ministers and directors-general, who are policymakers. Secondly, when we talk about corruption, we talk mainly about taking bribes. Power abuse is also a form of corruption. It is also an abuse of power to deny the rights that individuals are entitled to and grant rights that individuals are not entitled to. Taking and accepting bribes, making efforts and negotiating to get bribes, and offering and promising to do something in exchange for bribes are all forms of corruption. It is a vast subject.

KZM: Speaking of abuse of power, besides the abuse of power by authorities, what about the abuse of power by their children and relatives for personal gain? How can the government handle this? There are reports that children of current and former government officials have business interests in connection with their parents’ positions, but those who try to expose this may get into trouble without concrete evidence.

YMT: Amendments are being made to the Anti-Corruption Law. Half of the amendments have been approved [by the Parliament]. The [Anti-Corruption Commission] should take greater initiative. It should verify reports [of corruption scandals] on social media and mass media and carry out the necessary investigations rather than wait for somebody to file a complaint. Only then will corruption be fought on a wide scale.

It is more important to monitor tigers [high-ranking officials] than flies [low-level officials] in fighting corruption. Not long after the NLD government took office, a company gave a gift in the form of money to [a President’s Office official] during the Thingyan festival. The money was given back. The commission shouldn’t just let it go. Now, a minister is being investigated for corruption. [The government] should go to the root; it should find out who nominated and supported that minister. It should find out and take action against those who are connected. Regarding giving gifts, there is a need for tough control among tigers in the administrative mechanism.

KZM: To summarize, as NLD government and its leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi have said that corruption shouldn’t be tolerated. Only when it takes decisive action against corruption with accountability, will it win greater support from the people.  It is also important to verify and get the right people. But, they don’t have much time—only two years. Thank you for your contributions!