Curbing corruption in Myanmar: Significant progress but challenges ahead

By: Hein Thant Swe

“If a country is to be corruption free and become a nation of beautiful minds, I strongly feel there are three key societal members who can make a difference. They are the father, the mother and the teacher”
-A.P.J. Abdul Kalam (11th President of India)

Corruption is one of the diseases inflicting modern states. It exists in many forms. If you have to pay in illicit payment just to gain business permits or bribe tax collectors and bureaucrats to secure a lower tax payment, you are definitely living in a corrupt environment.

Whenever we talk about bureaucracy, the term “corruption” is usually referred to a situation in which a government official is abusing its entrusted power for personal gains. Although there some efforts have been accelerated in certain areas of governance (e.g.- e-governance) in recent decades, the elimination of endemic corruption in the world has yet to make great strides. According to the Corruption Perceptions Index 2018 by Transparency International, most countries could not curb corruption effectively last year and thus contributed to the ongoing decline of democracy around the world (Transparency International, 2018). However, recently, Myanmar has started to flex its muscles in anti-corruption efforts through her new weapon: Anti-corruption Commission of Myanmar.

Corruption in Myanmar

After four decades of restraint by the military dictatorship, Myanmar now faces various hardships in moving forward. Corruption, as one of the main challenges, continues to pervade government to implement its development-oriented reforms. The country has been consistently ranked among the world’s most corrupt countries in Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index and 2018 witnessed Myanmar ranking at 132nd out of 180 countries. (Transparency International, 2018)

In business contexts, corruption was often identified as a hindrance, especially with respect to obtaining firm registration, business licenses and permits from government authorities. Also, corruption poses a serious risk to country’s forests. More than 3200 Forestry Department staff has been subject to disciplinary measures over the past eight years for bribery and corruption which made them neglect illegal loggers. (Myo K, 2018). Petty corruption meaning the extortion of small bribes or gifts from citizens by low-to-mid level bureaucrats is also common.

 There are different reasons why corruption is prevalent in Myanmar. The first reason could be the usual practices of nepotism which mean favoring somebody because of personal connections rather than qualifications. Nepotism destroys meritocracy by filling offices with unqualified people, thereby reducing the efficiency of the governing body.
Besides, low civil-service pay rate is an important factor to take into consideration because civil servants are often struggling hard to make ends meet with their low income. This often leads to civil servants having to search for other means to feed his family well. Civic Whatever the reason might be, corruption surely undermines trust in government and its institutions.

Anti-Corruption Commission: The Messiah?

On 21st May 2019, ACC (Anti-Corruption Commission) has filed a lawsuit against Daw Marlar Tin (the manager of a Myanmar Agricultural Development Bank branch in Ayeyarwaddy Region) for allegedly demanding graft from farmers. (Htun H, 2019). This is not the first time in a string of anti-corruption measures aimed at corrupt government officials. Anti-Corruption Commission was established in 2013 to eliminate bribery in Myanmar. However, it had not really set the ball rolling until 2018 September when it started filing suit against high-ranking official U Han Htoo (Yangon Region General Attorney) and his conspirators. It was a scandal concerning the death of a well-known comedian evoking the furor of public. Since then, ACC has been operating as a beacon to combat corruption by carrying out prosecutions against powerful and influential but corrupt officials.

High expectations for this Commission are reflected in the flood of public complaints filed to the ACC over the year. It was reported that ACC experienced an unprecedented rise in the number of complaints, totaling 10543 during 2018. (Aung Shwe Y, 2019). Only 46 cases were handled under the Anti-Corruption Law while 1795 complaints were forwarded to the competent authorities so that they could handle complaints according to the relevant code of conduct for civil servants. However, it wasn’t unable to address the remaining 8092 complaints.

Remaining Challenges

Although ACC has been gaining momentum slowly, fighting against corruption is still a daunting problem in Myanmar. As U Aung Kyi – The Chairman of ACC was not satisfied with the commitment of stakeholders to handle corruptive cases; he asserted that “To effectively prevent internal corruption, it depends on the efforts of 200 heads of governmental departments and enterprises across the country.” (Aung San Y, 2019). Among the 1795 complaints ACC handed over to different state governments and ministries, only 538 cases were solved. It is reasonable because the demand for anti-corruption actions is too enormous for ACC to handle with its limited manpower, technical expertise, and experience.

Figure 3: Anti-Corruption Commission chairman U Aung Kyi speaks at an event to mark International Anti-Corruption Day in Naypyitaw in December 2018 – Myo Min Soe (The Irrawaddy)

Moreover, U Aung Kyi mentioned that an unwillingness to cooperate and a lack of accountability and transparency are biggest challenges of the commission. According to findings of the commission, there are some low-level employees working together with corrupt supervisors and the high-level officials who cover up investigations into officers’ dishonest or illegal activities. That’s why the commission is calling for the cooperation from the concerned departments’ heads in tackling corruption. (Aung San Y, 2019).

What’s next?

Many observers recognize the incumbent commitment of the government to upending corruption. In Myanmar Sustainable Development Plan (2018-2030), there is an action plan to review and strengthen anti-corruption related legislation, enforcement measures and policies, including strengthening grievance and whistle-blower mechanism as strategy 1.4.5. ACC is now drafting the Whistle-blower Protection Bill to encourage those who voluntarily disclose information about fraud or power abuse in government departments. (Zaw Naing H, 2019)

The fourth amendment to the Anti-Corruption Law has helped ACC expand its authority and extend some functions. It gives the commission the mandate to probe any civil servant who is seen to be unusually wealthy at its own discretion. More education over combating corruption is also included in this new amendment.

Moreover, Corruption Prevention Units (CPU) are now set up within government departments by ACC to take actions more efficiently after President U Win Myint’s Approval. This is intended to increase the accountability of government departments in fighting against corruption. Commission branches are also soon to be operated in other states and regions too. (Aung San Y, 2018)

ACC is also increasing engagements with non-local actors. It has tried to gain insightful comments and suggestions from numerous notable persons with expertise and experience in the field of curbing corruption by receiving them in ACC Office. As of now, ACC has also finished signing MoUs with four anti-graft bodies from other countries to increase collaborations in handling corruption.

People generally have high hopes for ACC in the war against corruption. Nevertheless, there are also concerns surrounding the efficiency of ACC. Some MPs have criticized the performance of ACC as mediocre by pointing out to the low number of cases that ACC could handle over the year. Despite these controversies, for people who are so getting sick of deep-rooted corruption in Myanmar, ACC is the only available option now.k


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