The Dangers of Reporting on Nepotism

By Kyaw Zwa Moe 13 September 2014

Recently, The Irrawaddy disclosed information that the government wanted to keep hidden from the public, and as a result we are now on the “blacklist” of Rangoon Division’s chief minister.

That’s what one lower-level minister in the divisional government and a lawmaker in the divisional legislature voluntarily told The Irrawaddy, though they requested anonymity.

The minister suggested that Irrawaddy reporters use pen names or forgo their bylines if they plan to continue writing investigative stories about the secrets of Chief Minister Myint Swe.

The lawmaker claimed to have overheard the chief minister telling another official in the divisional legislature that he was not pleased by our thorough reporting. “The Irrawaddy should be put on the blacklist—see the critical stories they keep writing,” the lawmaker quoted the chief minister as saying.

On Sept. 2, an investigation by our news organization revealed the nepotism of Myint Swe, who awarded the contract for a multi-billion dollar city expansion project to two Chinese businessmen who have had a close relationship with him for years.

Myint Swe’s divisional government awarded the contract secretly to the businessmen’s largely unknown company, Myanmar Say Ta Nar Myothit. Without any prior consultation, the chief minister announced the decision to the divisional legislature on Aug. 22, leading to criticism by lawmakers about a lack of transparency for such a major development project.

The Irrawaddy’s Burmese-language journal and its English-language website first reported that the company belonged to the two Chinese businessmen, Xiao Sen and Xiao Feng, who, according to several of our sources, are quite friendly with the chief minister. We reported that the two businessmen had also received business concessions in the past thanks to their close relations with other high-ranking officials in the former junta, including a retired major-general, former Construction Minister Khin Maung Myint and former Rangoon Mayor Aung Thein Lin, who is now a member of the Lower House of Parliament.

One week later, as local journals and websites reported on the divisional government’s lack of transparency, government officials backed down and said they would put out a tender for the development project in the near future, giving all private companies a chance to participate. However, the business circle in Rangoon remains skeptical.

Our investigation was not intensive, but it did reveal the tip of a rampant practice of nepotism among high-ranking officials in the current central and local governments. And while we could have dug much deeper, it was enough to anger the chief minister.

Myint Swe, however, is not atypical. For decades, government officials in Burma have been notorious for padding their pockets by granting lucrative business concessions to cronies and close family members. In the past, censorship prevented anyone inside the country from disclosing these murky deals that affected not only public assets but also natural resources.

“Nothing has changed,” a well-known and wealthy businessman told me over the phone when I called to ask about Myint Swe’s recent deal with the Chinese businessmen. He said Xiao Sen and Xiao Feng, like some other lesser known cronies in the country, do not appear on the US sanctions list.

Kyaw Zwa Moe is editor (English Edition) of
the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]
Kyaw Zwa Moe is editor (English Edition) of
the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]

According to a ranking by graft watchdog Transparency International, Burma ranks 157 out of 177 countries on an index measuring the perceived amount of corruption in the public sector. Parliament passed an anti-corruption law in September last year, leading to the formation of an ant-corruption commission that is headed by and largely composed of former military officials.

Upper House Speaker Khin Aung Myint told The Irrawaddy in early 2012 that fighting graft was the most important issue facing the country in its transition from half a century of military rule. He said he was approving a parliamentary committee to investigate how ministries spent their budgets and that the legislature would urge the government to take action when needed.

Two years later, it seems that little has been done. Last month, President Thein Sein acknowledged in a speech that bribery remains rampant. “Civil service officers need to change their morality and spirit to call for an end to corruption,” he said, calling for more progress in the anti-corruption campaign before his term ends in 2015.

The president talks the talk, but he does not walk the walk. If he was serious about tackling this problem, he would encourage the media to uncover the corruption of high-ranking members of his government who have secret business deals with cronies. Instead, journalists come under fire when they investigate such issues.

In 2012, for example, six key ministries were found to have misused millions of dollars in state funds, according to a government audit report released to members of the Lower House. Local media wrote about the audit report, and one of the journals, The Voice weekly, was charged with libel. The charge was later dropped, but nobody from the ministries was prosecuted.

And now The Irrawaddy has landed on the Rangoon chief minister’s “blacklist.” These days, it seems to be more dangerous for journalists to report on corruption and nepotism than it is for them to cover political issues. The government may or may not be shifting toward democracy, but clearly it still has many secrets—very profitable secrets—that it refuses to reveal.