Corruption stunts Myanmar’s economic potential

There are 34 hurdles Myanmar needs to overcome to achieve sustained economic growth, the greatest of which is corruption, according to reports compiled by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP), the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chamber of Commerce and Industry (UMFCCI) and Myanmar Business Survey.

Low technology, difficulties in land accessibility, high interest rates, a shortage of skilled labour and political instability also contribute to the country’s sluggish economic recovery.

“The ruling government must be held liable to fight corruption if it calls itself democratic. Measures against corruption must be free from bias, too. The Chinese and Indian governments have tried to stamp out this immorality. Corruption cases can be found in the US and even in the Nordic countries. So it should be in Myanmar. We just have to find ways to eliminate the corrupt mind-set that has pervaded here for decades. The fight against corruption will serve as a platform for political campaigns in the coming election. World leaders have now sought to erase corruption from their countries,” said Dr Maung Maung Lay, the deputy chairperson of the UMFCCI.

Even after the ascension of Myanmar’s civilian government, bribery remains a pervasive problem around the country.

“Bribery damages the judicial pillar, making the courts veer from justice. The fight against corruption and bribery may be hard, but it is not impossible. It can be cured in its early stages, like cancer. The government has acknowledged corruption. The officials should try to eliminate it now that it is diagnosed,” said Aung Myo, a famous writer.

Pointless budget proposals and instances of draining budget surpluses into individuals’ savings accounts have hit headlines recently. Parliamentarians put forward a motion to draft the laws against such appropriations on February 3 while they discussed the January report of the Public Account Joint Committee, which reviewed the country’s half-year turnovers.

“The number of briberies exceeds that of corruption. The problem is whether the country will fight either corruption or bribery. The problem would remain unresolved if the government is unable to crack down in a correct manner. Technology failures occur when corruption and bribery are rife. Corrupt officials would think about their personal gains only, turning a blind eye to technological development. Likewise, land speculation problems arise. I think these problems are intertwined. So we should solve these problems,” said retired Yangon Institute of Economics professor Dr Maung Maung Soe.

“I don’t exactly know to what extent corruption and bribery are a problem in Myanmar. But it must be treated as a crucial issue. Corrupt practices still exist. The government should fight it. The government has issued laws, orders and directives regarding corruption and bribery. The government’s efforts to fight against it will fail as long as people from the old system remain in the current government mechanism. Corruption and bribery will exist more or less as long as those close to the government get privileged rights. We need to reshuffle the leadership. Or else, they need to change their mindsets,” said lawyer Than Maung.

“Legal action against corrupt officials has been weak, despite the government’s formation of the anti-corruption commission in parliament. Parliamentarians cannot take direct legal actions; they only play a monitoring role. Law enforcement bodies need to take legal action in a constant and transparent manner. The Myanmar economy is driven by only a handful of businesspersons. This is the result of corruption and bribery,” Than Maung added.

Corruption and bribery are rife in government ministries, immigration and population departments, police stations and courts.

“The country sees various forms of corruption and briberies. I would like to highlight the State budget. The law says the use of state funds is to be in accordance with laws, rules and regulations. The Finance Commission is chaired by President Thein Sein, while two vice-presidents serve as vice chairmen of the commission. The commission allotted budgets to the ministries. Then, the auditor-general’s office audited the use of those allocated budgets. As a distinct point, the second bi-annual audit report for the 2013-2014 fiscal year covers more than 400 pages. That report highlighted that the government ministries failed to follow the rules and regulations in spending their allotted budgets. It shows a lack of accountability and responsibility of those from every level of the hierarchy. The audit reports become worse year by year.  Budgets increase yearly because of misuse of government funds. The ministers have to take responsibility for budget misuse within their ministries. The president needs to take responsibility for his ministers. The Finance Commission is too weak to take action against the ministries. The rule of law is gradually less important. Then they can do what they want, regardless of the law,” said Phyo Min Thein, the secretary of the Banks and Monetary Affairs Development Committee and MP for Hlegu constituency.

“[The ministries] said some money is saved in the banks. We have to ask, who took the interest? They are also very late to implement their projects, so the quality is not good as they rush to meet the deadlines. This is a hindrance to combating poverty. If you checked the budgets, it looks like they are spending billions of kyats on the projects. In reality, not all of the money is invested in the projects. When we pointed this out, the ministers replied that they will do more for better conditions, but they are not taking responsibility. Any action taken against them is rather weak. I think it is very important,” said Phyo Min Thein.

He said the government has to spend the budget to develop the nation. He claimed that taking bribes and corruption can affect the daily lives of ordinary people, saying poverty cannot be reduced if the government cannot combat corruption cases.

“Ministries must take responsibilities if they cannot achieve their targets. In other countries, the ministers quit if they fail to achieve anything. They need to have self-awareness to combat bribery cases. The Public Accounts Committee in the parliament pointed out bribery in its report, but no action has been taken,” he said.

The government has repeatedly promised to battle corruption, but few cases have been brought against serious offenders.

The Ministry of Finance spent more than any other ministry last year because the government included regions’ and states’ budgets under the Ministry of Finance. The Ministry of Energy and Ministry of Defence followed after the Ministry of Finance.

Some have suggested that corruption in Myanmar should be tackled by boosting the rule of law in general.

“If we want to prevent government employees from committing corruption, we have to provide sufficient salaries in line with their posts. Some departments appoint ten officers to do what two people can do, so the budget is wasted, and the government cannot provide sufficient budgets for certain ministries. That’s when corruption happens. We need to appoint more policemen to secure rule of law. We need to deal with illegal immigration. If the rule of law is weak, corruption ensues,” said the MP.

“The junta gave a lot of power to the commanders after 1988. There was huge amount of corruption cases after that. The army must reduce its involvement in the business sector. Some military leaders and people who are once commanders are the main concerned. The government provides military expenses for the army. They don’t need make profits from the business sector. The defence budget is already included in the state budget. The parliament provides higher budgets annually. But the army used its authority to establish the Union of Myanmar Economic Holding Ltd. It is the biggest business enterprise in Myanmar. It is undeniable that corruption comes with authority,” said MP Min Thu.