In Burma, Gift Hampers Are Govt Officials’ Dirty Laundry

By Htet Naing Zaw 24 October 2013

While corruption remains a target of President Thein Sein’s reform drive, some public employees say “respect paying,” a long-standing practice with Buddhist underpinnings, continues to undermine those efforts as government officials accept gift baskets from their junior charges—and reward them with professional opportunities accordingly.

Traditionally, centuries-old custom demands that Burmese Buddhists, especially young people, pay respect to their parents, teachers and elderly relatives during Thadingyut, the seventh month of the Burmese calendar and the end of Buddhist Lent, by offering them fruits and other gifts. In return, the recipient elders wish good fortune on the gift givers.

Others engage in a more troubling form of the practice, effectively bribing government officials in high places with the hope of furthering their professional fortunes.

“That kind of paying respect has become a tradition,” said a divisional officer from the Rangoon Division Transportation Department who requested anonymity.

“There’s no limit on the amount of gifts or how expensive they are. But the more expensive the gift, the better opportunities you will receive,” he added.

A source from the Rangoon Division government said all sub-departments of the government had to show up with gifts to show their respect for their superiors during Thadingyut last year.

He said at least four to five times a year—during the full moons of Thadingyut and Tazaungdaing in November, and at Christmas, New Year’s Eve and the Burmese New Year in April—departmental superiors and influential generals receive hampers filled with everything from Ovaltine to Hennessy X.O cognac, bottles of vintage wine or expensive Scotch. The price of the hampers varies from 60,000 kyats (US$62) to 600,000 kyats, depending on the contents.

A superior used to receive at least 100 hampers, which are then typically sold back to supermarkets, giving them an opportunity to earn upwards of 10 million kyats.

This year during Thadingyut, which was marked on Oct. 19, the hampers were nowhere to be seen at divisional offices in Rangoon, with a ban on the gifting practice enforced.

“This year, cars and people bringing the hampers were not allowed to enter the office in order to prevent bribery. But what if they send them directly to the houses?” said an administrative officer.

The gifting of the hampers is the sort of dirty laundry that has placed Burma consistently at the bottom of Transparency International’s annual corruption assessments, putting it among the most graft-ridden countries in the world. Last year, the Southeast Asian nation was ranked 172 in the watchdog’s Corruption Perceptions Index, which measures perceived public sector corruption in 176 countries.

And the “respect paying” is arguably just the tip of the iceberg

Since the earliest days of the former military regime, which monopolized most of the country’s business sectors, it has been common practice for businessmen to grease the palms of high-ranking military officials to clinch lucrative contracts. A tycoon heavily involved in agriculture businesses across the country built mansions for military chiefs in the regions where he had operations. Others approach the children of powerful generals as go-betweens to gain approval for their business plans.

While many participate in the gifting of hampers, some businessmen say they refuse to play ball.

“I’m worried that the habit of bribe-giving in the guise of paying respect will root deeply, although the country is trying to abolish bribery and corruption,” said Ba Ba Cho, a secretary of the Myanmar Timber Merchants Association. “I think this tradition will be hard to eliminate. I’m really against this custom.

“When you pay respect, you should do it from the heart. Gift [giving] is not the important matter,” said Min Thu, a member of Parliament from the National League for Democracy (NLD). “It is awful that the tradition of giving respect has become part of the corruption and I’m afraid this habit will take root as a tradition.”