Despite Improvements, Corruption Continues in Burma

By Tin Htet Paing 27 January 2017

RANGOON — Burma has risen slightly in transparency rankings under the new civilian government, ranking 136th out of 176 nations in a new report from graft watchdog Transparency International this week.

Under the systematic oppression of a military junta for several decades, the country suffered from political crises and nepotism. The United States and the European Union blacklisted the country for many years until a political reform took place under the new quasi-civilian government in 2010, and sanctions were only lifted last year after a democratically elected civilian-led government took office.

On a 100-point scale ranking clean governance, Burma scored a 28, the same as Guatemala, Kyrgyzstan and Lebanon. Denmark and New Zealand topped the index with scores of 90, followed by Finland with 89.

From its ranking of 180th out of 183 countries in 2010, Burma has also made progress in less than 10 years in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, which measures the perceived amount of corruption in the public sector.

In 2015, Burma ranked 147th out of 168 nations, earning 22 on a scale of 100. Despite the improvement, Burma continues to face challenges in ending corruption, consistently ranking among the bottom countries every year.

The Berlin-based graft monitoring organization’s most recent results regarding corruption perception highlighted the link between corruption and inequality, the 2016 report stated.

“The two phenomena interact in a vicious cycle,” the report said. “Corruption leads to an unequal distribution of power in society which, in turn, translates into an unequal distribution of wealth and opportunity,” it explained.

The report claimed that the lower-ranked countries in the index have “untrustworthy” and “badly functioning” public institutions, while higher-ranked ones are likely to enjoy an independent judicial system and a high degree of access to information.

Even where anti-corruption laws are on the books, in practice these laws are often skirted or ignored in lower-ranked countries, the report said.

Burma became a legitimate state party to the UN Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) in January 2013 and enacted an anti-graft law under former President U Thein Sein in July. The law mandated a commission chaired by U Mya Win, a former major general in the Burma Army. The commission has received 2,661 complaints since its formation in March 2014, according to its own statistics.

Last year, the National League for Democracy-dominated Parliament urged the cabinet to take a stronger stance against the country’s deep-rooted nepotism and corruption, following the party’s landslide win in the 2015 election. It complained that the commission had not achieved a significant reduction in corruption, suggesting that a new commission under the popularly elected NLD government be re-formed.

Commission chair U Mya Win said some provisions of the anti-graft law need to be modified to allow the commission more authority in handling complaints.

Commission member U Thin Maung echoed U Mya Win, adding that corruption will not disappear immediately and can only be reduced over time.

“The country’s democratic transition contributed to its rise on the transparency index,” he said, emphasizing that under the new government the commission could perform “more systematically” in handling corruption complaints.

Judicial grievances ranked at the top of the Upper House of Parliament’s Public Complaints Committee, with more than 2,000 letters received out of 4,071 complaints, expressing grievances with court decisions, alleged corruption of judicial servants, and a slow judicial process.

Observers have cited several drivers of corruption and bribery in Burma, including low pay for government employees and a complex and nontransparent bureaucracy, which in turn creates an abundance of opportunities for bribery and other forms of corruption.