Blocking Access to Spending Report May Violate Myanmar Graft Law, Watchdog Warns Yangon Govt

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 7 January 2020

YANGON—An independent watchdog monitoring the Yangon government’s performance has warned that the regional administration’s ban on distributing the auditor-general’s report to lawmakers for parliamentary debate could lead to violations of the country’s anti-corruption law.

In June last year, the Yangon regional government intervened to limit distribution of the Yangon Auditor-General’s report on its spending in fiscal 2017-18. The Yangon government chief minister and the regional parliament speaker assigned the parliament’s Public Accounts Committee to review the report, rather than delivering copies to every lawmaker for their prior review, as was the case in previous years. The committee will have to report its findings back to the parliament. But a majority of the lawmakers were left wondering whether the committee’s review would thoroughly cover irregularities in government spending.

As the current Yangon government took office in 2016, the auditor-general’s report for fiscal 2017-18 will be an assessment of the two-year-old U Phyo Min Thein administration’s management of public funds.

Annually, the office prepares the report and submits its findings to the Yangon parliament as dictated by the Union Auditor-General Law. It is also customary to send copies of the report to each regional lawmaker in advance so they can study it before joining parliamentary debates on the government’s spending.

Normally, the Yangon parliament discusses the annual report on the government’s expenditure in October. However, with the government having blocked the report’s circulation in June, the government’s spending for fiscal 2017-18 has yet to be discussed by lawmakers.

The Public Accounts Committee said the 2017-18 audit report was blocked in order to bring the regional parliament’s procedures in line with those of the Union Lower House, which does not allow prior review by lawmakers of audit reports. But there has been speculation that the restriction reflects the government’s desire to avoid a repeat of regional lawmakers’ fiery debate over irregularities in government spending found in the fiscal 2016-17 report.

Based on the contents of the report, lawmakers in the Yangon parliament in 2018 raised questions about the loss of US$2.3 million (3.5 billion kyats) of public funds spent on the city bus service, and the regional government’s borrowing of 13.5 billion kyats from two private banks for school buses without the parliament’s knowledge. To the government’s embarrassment, a lawmaker even said the Yangon government had abused its power by investing 10 billion kyats in a controversial new city project without the parliament’s approval.

In its statement released on Monday, Yangon Watch warned that “any failure to follow procedures by misusing one’s power to favor someone else’s interests fits the definition of corruption,” citing Article 3(a) of the Anti-Corruption Law.

Daw Nyo Nyo Thin, the founder of Yangon Watch, told the media on Monday: “Someone, or a group of people, could get a chance to fix or cover up their wrongdoing during the period in which the report was not released for everyone to access.”

The law states that anyone with a political position found guilty of corruption faces a maximum of 15 years’ imprisonment.

The Yangon Watch leader added that the 2017-18 report would contain some interesting findings on government spending on controversial projects like the public bus service or the Yangon New City development.

In 2018, Daw Nyo Nyo Thin — who had earlier served as a regional lawmaker under the previous government — complained to the country’s Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) about the Yangon government’s mismanagement of public funds, calling for an investigation into losses revealed by the audit of the region’s fiscal 2016-17 budget.

Responding to the complaint, the commission said in October 2018 that there was no need for it to investigate the losses because the government and auditor general were still working through the procedures that must follow the release of any audit report. It pointed out that the incidents listed in the complaint predated Article 3(a) (2) of the Anti-Corruption Law, which the complaint cited but which only took effect in July of that year when the law was amended.

Asked if she would file a complaint with the ACC this time, Daw Nyo Nyo Thin told The Irrawaddy that she would wait to see how the issue unfolds in the Yangon parliament, which will resume on Wednesday after a long recess.

If there is no progress in the parliament, she said, Yangon Watch would file a complaint, including evidence, with Myanmar President U Win Myint, who has made the fight against corruption one of his top priorities.

“If there is no response, we will go ahead with the ACC,” she said.

U Khine Win, the executive director of the Sandhi Governance Institute in Yangon, said the restriction on access to the auditor-general’s report didn’t make sense, pointing out that not even the previous quasi-military government had imposed such a measure, referring to the administration of former general U Thein Sein, which was in power prior to the current National League for Democracy government.

“It should be more open now under the NLD government, which takes budget transparency seriously. If you keep the report secret, people will be more suspicious [of the government’s intention and the report’s content],” he said.

Daw Nyo Nyo Thin said it would be “satisfactory” to her if the full report were made available to the lawmakers and the public during the upcoming session of parliament.

“If it really happens, there is no need for us to go ahead and we will let it go. What really annoys us is the abuse of power to block the people’s constitutional right to know.”

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