Zaw Myat Lin discusses the issue of corruption and the current anti-corruption campaigns ongoing in Myanmar.
Recently, two different assessments have come out regarding anti-corruption efforts and their successes in Myanmar. The President U Win Myint, in his new year speech delivered on 17 April, stated that “if we were to show visible and tangible results you would see our successes to a certain extent in the area of preventing and combatting corruption, a chronic disease which has taken deep roots for many administrations. Our Union Government has been taking action against corruption in accordance with the law without favoring anyone with only the interest of the people and the country in our minds.”
On the other hand, the head of the Myanmar’s Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) U Aung Kyi declared in his April 29th annual report to the Union Parliament that corruption remains rampant in the country, despite the intense efforts. He based this claim on the findings of a nationwide survey, conducted by an independent party, and underlined the key factors contributing to a culture of corruption: self-interest, resistance to change, ineffective measures, and poor rule of law. Both the ACC’s report to the parliament and the survey report are not yet publicly available.
In the literature on corruption, there is no consensus regarding the term’s definition. Different people have different perceptions of corruption and there is no single way to define it. However, it is most commonly defined as the use of public power and office to private ends, and it can take various forms such as bribery, extortion, influence, fraud, embezzlement, payoffs for political favors, and preferential access to services. According to Myanmar’s Anti-Corruption Law, enacted in 2013, “corruption” refers to “the misuse of his post by the competent authority for making to act something [sic] or to avoid the lawful act or to give the legal right to someone or to prohibit the legal right incorrectly, or giving, accepting, obtaining, attempt to obtain, proposal, promise or discussion by any means the corrupt [sic] from the relevant person for him, or any other person, or organization directly or indirectly.”
The best indicator of corruption so far is the level of public sector corruption perceived by businesspeople, analysts and experts in countries around the world, though this remains open to criticism. The Corruption Perception Index (CPI) developed by Transparency International has been the most-used indicator of corruption levels across the world. It is a composite index based on 13 independent surveys specializing in governance and business climate. The index provides extensive data on perceptions of corruption within countries, and ranks them according to how corrupt a country’s public sector is perceived to be. A country is scored on a scale of 0 (most corrupt) to 100 (least corrupt).
Yet, there is a great deal of difficulty in measuring corruption and its impacts, as corruption usually occurs in secret and largely goes unreported. Nevertheless, the literature on corruption presents a fairly strong consensus that corruption has severe negative impacts on economic and human development in various ways. A number of studies [Shleifer and Vishny (1993), Mauro (1995), Mauro (1998), Nielsen and Haugaard (2000), De La Croix and Delavallade (2008), Gupta et al., (2000)] point out that corruption harms economic and human development by causing inefficient bureaucracies, lower investment rate, misallocation of investment among sectors, budget distortion, lowered governments’ expenditures on education and health, and increased costs of basic public services.
According to the Annual Corruption Index released earlier this year, Myanmar ranked 132nd out of 180 countries with a 2018 score of 29. This is a drop from the country’s score in the 2017 index, where it ranked 130th out of 180 with a score of 30. However, if we look at Myanmar’s broader trend for the years between 2015 and 2018, as reported by Transparency International, it could be argued that there has been some progress in fighting corruption, at least in the public’s perception. In 2016, Myanmar ranked 136th out of 176 countries and scored 28. For 2015, it ranked 147th out of 168 countries and scored only 22. Moreover, this year’s score is a remarkable improvement compared to 2012. Back in 2012, Myanmar ranked 172th out of 176 countries with a score of only 15.
Though Myanmar is considered on such international indexes as one of the most corrupt countries in the world, the issue of corruption in the country has not yet received much rigorous scholarly attention. As a result, very few empirical studies and evidence exist. The World Bank’s 2016 Enterprise Survey Myanmar 2016 underscored three specific types of situations where businesses encounter corruption in Myanmar, including requesting a construction permit, securing a government contract and in meetings with tax officials. The survey report also argues that corruption creates an unfavorable business environment in Myanmar by causing inefficient regulation and raising bureaucratic costs.
A 2016 study on experiences of local justice in Myanmar also documented the effects of corruption in terms of preventing the building of trust in state institutions, including in the justice sector. Due to prevalent corruption at all levels of the formal justice system— from police to court staff, lawyers and judges— people believe that the outcomes they desire can be bought. Many poor people cannot afford adequate access to the formal justice system due to rampant corruption which makes public legal services more expensive than they should be. Furthermore, this study also identified that corruption deters people from using the formal justice system to resolve their disputes and grievances. Another survey – the Myanmar Justice Survey 2017 – highlighted that people view corruption as an issue of injustice, and that a great number of people have experienced incidents of bribery or corruption when they face issues related to their legal identity and land registration. According to the survey, exactly 50% of the households who have experienced an incident of corruption have also faced problems getting their legal identities, while 21 % have faced issues with land registrations. This means that corruption is prevalent not only in the justice sector institutions, but also across administrative services. This study also indicates that particular groups are more vulnerable to administrative corruption. For example, 75% of Muslim households report experiencing two or more disputes – one about legal identity documents – having been subject to corruption.
Corruption is not confined only to the business and judicial arena, but also extends to other areas of public service, such as the education and health care systems. For instance, in the area of basic education in Myanmar, though there is no systematic and empirical study of corruption, it has been widely recognized that teachers deliberately cover only part of the standard syllabi during the classes in public schools in order to promote demand for their after-school private lessons. Teachers’ salaries are very low and, for them, it is impossible to live a decent life with such low salaries. According to a September 2016 report from the Myanmar Times, starting monthly salaries for teachers range from MMK155,000 (about 100 USD) to MMK175,000 (about 115 USD). Consequently, they have to rely on extra income from providing private tutoring and this practical need of extra income further entrenches corrupt practices in the education sector.
The public health care sector, also long underfunded and neglected like the education sector, is facing a similar situation. The staff gets paid very little and informal or under-the-table payments have to be made by patients and other service recipients. Patients might see such payments as an opportunity to contribute to a health care institution or to express gratitude for the services they receive from physicians, not considering them as an act of corruption or bribery. But such rent-seeking behaviors hit the poor hardest, as they have to rely mainly on public provisions of health care and education and cannot afford to pay extra or informal fees. Additionally, those with less education and poor health earn much less than highly-educated and healthy subsets of the population, resulting in wider inequality between the poor majority and the rich few, a situation which is likely to engender increased poverty and social injustice.
Besides, what is more disturbing is that low-level salaries affect the morale of the staff in all areas of public service provisions, providing fertile ground for bribery. Corruption and bribery come to be seen as morally justified. The factor of low salaries may be the main cause of this, and it is difficult to understand why the head of the ACC did not include this as a key factor contributing to corruption in Myanmar.
The NLD has confidently promised, both before and after the 2015 elections, that its government will be corruption-free. And anti-corruption has been at the top of the NLD’s agenda since the party came to power in 2016. It reformed the ACC, naming U Aung Kyi, a former information minister and a retired major-general, as the chairman of the body. However, given the poor record of the previous ACC, people had significant doubts about the performance of the body, as well as about its willingness to effectively address systemic and entrenched corrupt practices. U Aung Kyi also openly admitted that without amending the 2013 Anti-Corruption Law, the ACC will not be able to do much to suppress corruption.
The ACC was originally established in accordance with the 2013 Anti-Corruption Law in February 2014. But, the 2013 Anti-Corruption Law allowed the ACC to act only in response to a complaint and gave it no power to launch its own investigation. Though the law was amended three times between 2014 and 2017- the first time on 23rd July 2014, the second time on 29th July 2016 and the third time on 31st July 2017- all these amendments merely focused on the provisions of less substantive issues such as the name of the law (it was originally called Anti-Bribery Law), the status, emolument and allowance for the chairman and members of the ACC, expressions related to membership and the age of members. Consequently, the ACC has been perceived as lacking resources, legal teeth, and political will to address its focus of corruption. Therefore, the NLD government, with the suggestions of the reformed ACC, amended the law for the fourth time on 21st June 2018 and allowed it to launch investigations without a formal complaint. This revised law also enables the ACC to regard indications of unusual wealth as information justifying an investigation, and thus is allowed to launch an investigation into a public servant known to have acquired wealth beyond his means. However, the amendment fails to include provisions for the protection of people who lodge complaints to the ACC, act as whistleblowers, or who testify as witnesses in the ACC’s investigations. The absence of protection for witnesses and whistleblowers may deter people from reporting incidences of corruption, and may thus lower the chances of the ACC detecting corruption.
Educating the public about the negative effects of corruption is also very important, especially when corruption is socially accepted (in the form of gifts to express gratitude) and morally justified. Section 41 of the Anti-Corruption Law includes a provision for public education. But it is quite limited. The government or the ACC must publish educational pamphlets with information about corruption. It must also circulate detailed procedure for submitting complaints. The official website of the ACC features trainings, seminars and public discussions it has organized to raise awareness of corruption amongst government officials and the general public. Yet these activities are quite limited, and the outreach is negligible compared to the vast need.
The data publicly available on the ACC’s website reveals that the ACC received 13,943 complaints between 24 November 2017 and 30 April 2019, and that it is taking action against 13,215 cases (over 94%), with 728 cases (over 5%) still under scrutiny. Out of the 13,215 cases the ACC has taken action on, only 74 were – or are – being investigated, with another 129 cases at the stage of pre-investigation. 2,321 complaints were transferred to other relevant government bodies, though it remains unknown how those other government bodies have dealt with these transferred complaints. Out of the other 10,691 complaints, the ACC judged that 6,993 were not related to the Anti-Corruption Law but provided suggestions to complainants. For the remaining 3,698 complaints, the ACC took no further action because: (1) they are being addressed by the President, the Vice-President, and the Speakers of the Parliaments, (2) because the complaints are still on trial, (3) because of the lack of important evidence, or (4) because the grievances occurred before the law was enacted. Therefore, according to the official statistics, the ACC directly addressed only 203 complaints (investigation and pre-investigation), less than 2% of the total complaints received. However, compared to the number of complaints received by the previous ACC, active between March 2014 to November 2017, a significant rise could be detected. According to a 2018 Frontier Myanmar report, over the course of these three years, the previous ACC received only 4,500 complaints, and only 66 were investigated, while another 1,126 were transferred to the various relevant ministries to be handled. Does the increased number of complaints imply increased public trust in the ACC? From this data it is impossible to complete any meaningful analysis or assessment of the ACC’s performance before and after the amendment to the law, or between the previous and the current ACCs. More systematic research will be needed.
However, it is noteworthy that the ACC has recently taken action against some high-profile figures. These include the former Chief Minister of Tanintharyi Region and the former Yangon Region Advocate General, who were arrested on charges of corruption and bribery. Some other prominent cases include the arrests of the Director of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Managing Director of a Mining enterprise under the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation and five senior officials from the Directorate of Water Resources and Improvement of River Systems (DWIR), a department under the Ministry of Transportation. The President likely made his New Year remarks with these cases in mind. Nevertheless, corruption is still widespread across various government departments and public service provisions.
Corruption is one of the most severe chronic diseases with which a country can be infected. Unfortunately, Myanmar has long been infected with this disease. If Myanmar is to be successful in its transition towards democracy, good governance, and economic prosperity, it must address all types of corruption – both grand and petty. To do so requires a strong political will as well as a good understanding of the nature and extent of corruption, as well as about corruption’s causes and consequences. While the formation of the ACC reflects the will of the government to fight corruption, it is not adequate on its own. Strong political will, a powerful legal framework, effective law enforcement, as well as public cooperation and participation are all crucial elements for a successful anti-corruption campaign.
Zaw Myat Lin is a development practitioner engaging in the areas of local governance, political economy, access to justice and rule of law. He studied international development for his master’s degree at Tulane University, USA with a Fulbright scholarship.