The Irrawaddy

Analysis: Myanmar Planning and Finance Minister’s Case a Test of Govt Seriousness on Corruption

In March, when he declared in his inauguration speech that fighting corruption was one of the top priorities on his to-do list, President U Win Myint was heartily applauded by his fellow citizens, who have long been disgusted by corrupt officials at nearly every level of government.

Two months later, it emerged that Planning and Finance Minister U Kyaw Win was under investigation by the Anti-Corruption Commission after it received complaints against him. While an embarrassment for Myanmar’s de facto leader, State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who boasted last year that her cabinet was corruption free, the development pleased the public, which praised the president as a man of his word. They followed the progress of the case closely, as it was the first time the National League for Democracy-led government had taken action against one of its own ministers.

But to the people’s dismay, the President’s Office announced on Friday that the corruption-tainted minister had been “allowed to resign” from his post. Some wondered aloud: “That’s all?” There is a strong desire to see a corrupt minister face serious punishment. Simply “letting him go” virtually encourages birds of the same feather to take bribes and leave their positions.

So far, the Anti-Corruption Commission has been silent about its findings. A statement released over the weekend said simply that it had submitted an investigation report to the president, adding that “except for classified matters, the commission will reveal the results of its investigation in U Kyaw Win’s case at an appropriate time.” There was no mention of whether the minister was guilty of the crime. If charged under the Anti-Corruption Law, he would face 15 years’ imprisonment.

Yangon-based political analyst Yan Myo Thein said the commission should make its findings public as soon as possible, given the high-profile nature of the case.

“If they don’t reveal the findings, the rumor mill will continue. That would have a negative impact on the government’s image,” he said.

“It’s time for the government to let the people know that it takes the anti-corruption effort very seriously,” he added.

U Ye Lin Myint, country coordinator of Myanmar Alliance for Transparency and Accountability (MATA), agreed that allowing the minister to resign was not the answer.

“The government should not stop at simply seeing that he leaves the position,” he said.

To complicate matters, the accused minister is an elected Lower House lawmaker, having won a seat in the 2015 election.

Commission spokesperson U Han Nyunt acknowledged that the agency’s hands were tied in many cases involving elected officials, but added that it was better that lawmakers are disciplined according to parliamentary procedure.

“We can take certain legal actions. But frankly speaking, lawmakers should be disciplined by the Parliament,” he said.

U Nay Myo Tun, a lawmaker representing Htantabin Township in the Lower House, said no law existed allowing action to be taken against lawmakers. “Though the Anti-Corruption Law says action can be taken against anyone, it is not the case for lawmakers, even if they do commit an offense. Relevant organizations have to be informed first,” he said.

“It is easy to take action against officials at the director-general and lower levels. But it is quite difficult to take action against political office holders,” U Nay Myo Tun said.

The most likely scenario in this case is that, given the political status of the accused, the commission referred the case to the president for a decision, as Union ministers are appointed by the president. Time will tell how the Parliament will respond to the case, as commission chairman U Aung Kyi told the media last week that the findings would be submitted to the House Speakers.

U Ye Lin Myint of MATA said that all those accused of a crime must be treated equally under the law, from the president on down.

“The people are interested to see to what extent the government follows the existing laws without taking sides,” he said.

NLD lawmaker Daw Khin San Hlaing said U Kyaw Win will be a test case for whether the party keeps its promises, referring to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s 2016 warning to new cabinet members, including U Kyaw Win, not to take bribes or engage in corruption. “If you do so,” she said at the time, “you will go to jail. I will visit those party members in prison.”

“So, if something goes wrong, you have to take responsibility for your actions,” Daw Khin San Hlaing said.