RANGOON — The Burma government’s reforms since a quasi-civilian government took charge in 2011 appear to be improving its poor reputation for corruption, with global watchdog Transparency International on Tuesday boosting the country’s ranking in its annual survey.
The Berlin-based organization put Burma 157 out of 177 countries surveyed for its Corruption Perceptions Index 2013.The ranking represents a significant improvement from Transparency International’s survey a year ago, in which the country was ranked 172 out of 176 nations, above only Sudan, Afghanistan, North Korea and Somalia.
The index gives countries scores between 0 (highly corrupt) and 100 (very clean). Despite the improvement, Burma’s score of 21 in this year’s index—compared with 15 in 2012—put it only level with troubled African states Zimbabwe and Burundi, and made it the worst performer in Southeast Asia, except for Cambodia (20).
Burma remained below neighbors Laos (26) and Bangladesh (27), while Thailand scored 35 and ranked in 102 in the index.
Transparency International said its rankings were based on “experts’ opinions of public sector corruption,” and took into account the level of access to information on corruption, the accountability of public bodies and the rules that a country has in place to govern the behavior of public officials.
The organization did not detail in its report how the rankings were reached for individual countries and did not immediately respond to questions from The Irrawaddy.
The improved ranking for Burma comes amid a program of economic reforms since President Thein Sein’s administration came to power and began to shed the country’s image as a highly corrupt military dictatorship that allowed government cronies to win contracts and receive favorable treatment.
A highly competitive tender for two telecommunications licenses, awarded in June, was seen as a comparatively transparent process. In August, contracts to build a new airport for Rangoon and to operate existing airports in the former capital and Mandalay were awarded after heated competition between international companies.
This year, open tenders have also been held for both onshore and offshore oil and gas exploration licenses, again with the government exercising levels of openness unseen under previous administrations.
Parliament in July approved a new Anticorruption Law, which established an anticorruption commission and requires officials in the executive, judicial and legislative arms of government to declare their assets.
Vicky Bowman, director of the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business, told The Irrawaddy that the new law was likely a factor in the improved ranking.
“The signals that the new Corruption Law have sent will also help to move it up the Index, as will the greater openness by government to report on officials dismissed for corruption—although there is still scope for more action on that,” Bowman said in an email.
“As for changes on the ground, there is anecdotal evidence that there has been a change of attitudes in areas which were previously particularly prone to corruption, such as obtaining building permits.”
Bowman, a former British ambassador to Burma, said the index was not an “exact science,” adding that Burma’s previous rankings from Transparency International seemed pessimistic based on her experience of other better-ranked countries.
“So I suspect that, since the index is based on ‘perceptions,’ and my hunch is that many people surveyed previously developed their perceptions from media reporting, the fact that more businesspeople are visiting and now familiar with the country may have moved it up the index.”
Longtime Burma watcher and economist Sean Turnell said the increasingly open atmosphere in Burma suggested that Transparency International likely had access to more information while coming up with the ranking, which could partly explain the improvement.
“I suspect this [ranking] is the result of real issues (such as the tender), as well as the broader positive ‘vibe’ about Burma across the survey period,” he said by email.