NAYPYIDAW — Director-general of Burma’s State Counselor’s Office U Zaw Htay said that the government’s policy of “no retrospection” meant it would not take punitive action against Magwe Division’s ex-chief minister U Phone Maw Shwe currently embroiled in an embezzlement case.
U Zaw Htay admitted U Phone Maw Shwe’s actions were punishable, but told reporters at a press conference at the Ministry of Information in Naypyidaw on Saturday that the National League for Democracy (NLD) government would not take retroactive action against him for fear of risking the country’s process of democratization.
“The policy of the new government is not to dig up the past,” said U Zaw Htay. “If we do so, there is a likelihood that [the country’s progress] might reverse.”
He said that this policy was not uncommon among countries undergoing democratic transition and that the State Counselor’s approach is to do as well as she can in line with the policies of the new government, no matter what the previous government had done in the past.
“If we dig into the past, it will never end—from the time of the military government to the time of the Burma Socialist Program Party. That’s why we have only instructed [U Phone Maw Shwe] to pay back an appropriate amount,” said the director-general.
The embezzlement was revealed after a lawmaker asked a question about the missing regional development funds of the former Magwe Division government in parliament last year.
According to an investigation by the Bureau of Special Investigation under the Ministry of Home Affairs, missing funds collected as tax from small-scale oil producers in the time of U Phone Maw Shwe amounted to 7.5 billion kyats.
The government in early April instructed U Phone Maw Shwe to return 1.7 billion kyats, four cars, a digger, and two boats which he donated in his capacity as the chief minister to the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), as well as over 1.57 billion kyats which he transferred to Shwe Thuka Microcredit Association.
According to the Magwe Division government, U Phone Maw Shwe informed it by letter that he would return over 3 billion kyats—over 1.7 billion kyats donated to USDP and over 1.57 billion kyats transferred to the lending firm—by the last week of July.
In the letter dated April 27 and addressed to Magwe Division chief minister Dr. Aung Moe Nyo, U Phone Maw Shwe said that chairman of Shwe Thukha Microcredit Association U Kyi Tun would act as his representative in returning the funds.
“I still don’t have direct contact [with U Phone Maw Shwe], and I have to consult with my ministers how those funds will be used [when I get them back],” said Dr. Aung Moe Nyo.
The letter stated that 500 million kyats out of 1.57 billion kyats transferred to the microcredit association would be returned in the first week of May. The remaining money would be returned by the last week of July, as it would take time for the lending firm to collect money from borrowers.
It also said that the vehicles donated to the USDP would be returned by April 30, but it is still unclear if they have been returned or not.
It is against election laws for a political party to accept and use public funds, and is punishable by abolishment of that party. USDP spokesperson Dr. Nandar Hla Myint has, however, denied receiving any donation from U Phone Maw Shwe.
Political commentator Dr. Yan Myo Thein said the new democratic government should not forgive corrupt officials at all, even if they are members of the former government.
“This is public funds, and the government, the parliament, and the military are responsible to prevent them [from being misused]” Dr. Yan Myo Thein told The Irrawaddy, adding that the misappropriated funds must be returned and those responsible investigated and charged in line with existing laws.
“If the government fails to take decisive legal action against the misappropriation of public funds for fear that it might reverse [the country’s progress], and harm national reconciliation efforts, the trust of the international community and our citizens in the democratization process will decline,” he added.
Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko