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‘Nothing Can be Done Well as Long as There is Corruption’

Source: Lowy Institute.

This material belongs to: The Irrawaddy.

YANGON — U Thin Maung, a member of Myanmar’s anti-corruption commission, explained in a recent interview with The Irrawaddy what the commission has accomplished since its formation more than three years ago, as well the difficulties in combating the country’s deep rooted corruption.

The commission was formed of former high-ranking officials under ex-President U Thein Sein’s government in February 2014, to enforce the Anti-Corruption Law. Its term expired in March, but since the new government hasn’t yet replaced the members, the commission continues to perform its duties.

Seventy-year-old U Thin Maung contrasted the low wages of civil servants with high commodity prices, citing it as the main reason for continued corruption in the government.

How much does corruption matter in the building of a country?

Nothing can be done well as long as there is corruption. When I was in Australia to earn a Master of Economics [degree], a professor asked us to identify a common characteristic of developing countries in the first lecture of Development Economics. The professor replied: corruption. Corruption is the most prominent common characteristic of poor nations.

As long as there is no corruption, nothing can be done in the way that it should be done, nothing can be done in the timeframe that has been planned—and besides, people won’t be treated fairly. But corruption has been around since ancient times. I would say it has become worse around the world. In a research paper from around the year 2000, the total cost of corruption was estimated annually to be US$1 trillion, which was equal to a cost of World Health Organization vaccination projects for children in 72 developing countries. But in 2015, it rose to $2 trillion. That proved that corruption didn’t disappear, even though more countries have improved their scores in corruption perception indexes like those by graft watchdog Transparency International. Myanmar ranked 172 out of 176 nations in 2012 and 136 in 2016. But these are the results according to their criteria. Even in Singapore, where there is a zero-tolerance policy towards bribery, there are still bribe-givers and takers with action being taken against them.

Is it impossible to be corruption-free?

As long as people hold onto their greed, it is impossible. When we say we will fight against corruption, it is to reduce it as much as we can.

What has the commission done during its three-and-a-half-year term?

We have investigated more than 40 cases out of 3,572 complaints. We can’t investigate all of the complaint letters that we receive. The law has a limitation saying that the one who files the complaint to us needs to describe evidence [of corruption]. Without it, we can’t start an investigation. Another thing is that we can’t disturb the judiciary system. If it is a case that is still ongoing in the courts, we can’t interrupt it. But if there is important evidence that the accused judge or lawyer is taking bribes, we carry out an investigation.

For complaint letters which addressed the State Counselor’s Office, the President’s Office or relevant ministries and sent a copy to us, we can’t start an investigation our own. We need to wait for instructions from the relevant ministries.

The commission also can’t look into the cases that happened before the law [2013 Anti-Corruption Law] became effective. The cases before it were handled by the Bureau of Special Investigation.

The letters which don’t include complete information about the complainant are rejected, as we can’t communicate with them and investigate whether or not the aggrieved person is real. For some, we transfer them directly to the regional or state governments or relevant ministries, if we think the cases could be resolved faster or more effectively by them.

Can the commission take action against bribe-givers?

That’s a controversial issue. For now, bribe-givers file complaints against those who took bribes. If we find out that it is true, we take action, and the bribe-givers become government witnesses in court. But the culprits always asked the court to declare the bribe-givers as co-culprits.

Under the law, the definition of the corruption includes giving, accepting, obtaining, or attempting to obtain a proposal, promise, or discussion.

But there are two kinds of bribe-givers—the one who is pressured to give and the one who gives on their own in order to gain advantages.

Those who are pressured or threatened to give bribes aren’t guilty. There was a case where we took action against the bribe-giver. A lawyer was imprisoned as he tried to bribe the judge in order to win in his client’s case.

But if we took action against all bribe-givers, I don’t think anyone would file complaints, as they would be afraid they would be imprisoned, too.

What limitations or difficulties is the commission facing in tackling corruption?

[Difficulties] in the legal process. If we find out about a graft after we have carried out an investigation into the complaint or the cases ordered by the President or speakers of the Parliament, we open the case. The cases opened under the Anti-Corruption Law didn’t grant bail and the accused person can be arrested immediately. But to arrest civil servants while they are in service, we need approval in advance from the head of the department in the ministry as per civil service law. And that takes at least one or two weeks to get the letter back from the department head saying that she or he did not object to the arrest. That has led to the accused person running away.

So far, around five people have gone on the run, including accused judges. If that happens, we declare them as fugitives and turn the case over to the Ministry of Home Affairs, which can issue an arrest warrant. We have only caught and arrested one fugitive.

Under the new government, the embezzlement of a large sum of regional development funds by the former chief minister was uncovered in Magwe Region. Are there any similar cases?

The Magwe case was not submitted to the commission. It came out following a lawmaker’s question in Parliament. We have not yet received cases dealing with an amount like that. The biggest case was that of the ex-deputy permanent secretary of Home Affairs U Pyone Cho and five others. [U Pyone Cho is now the secretary of the Karen State government. He was accused of involvement in a scandal concerning the sale of a land plot in Yangon worth an estimated 100 million kyats while he was serving as the deputy permanent secretary of the home affairs ministry under Gen Ko Ko in 2015.]

That case was the biggest since the commission’s formation in regard to the amount of money involved, and also the level of the officials in the case.

What do you think is the most important action to stop corruption among the civil servants?

The most important thing is that civil servants need to be happy with their civil service life. To be happy, they need to not to be worried about their meals. The other thing is their environment. We need to create a good environment for them where they can work happily. They will work hard if there is a guarantee for their careers. When we were civil servants, we could guess which positions we would be promoted to based on our work experience. But it’s different now.

Another thing is, in other countries, they increased the salaries of civil servants after making calculations based on inflation and the consumer price index. But we can’t do that yet.

Compared with the previous government, have you seen improvements under the new National League for Democracy (NLD) government? State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has also said that the fact that her ministers are not corrupt is what has pleased her the most in her first nine months of government in an interview with Channel News Asia.

We have not yet uncovered or received reports of corruption among the National League for Democracy (NLD) ministers, which is progress from the previous government, which was afflicted with allegations. I hope the situation continues like this.

The NLD government has come up with two priorities since assuming power: peace and a corruption-free government. They announced directives for the public procurement system to all ministries soon after taking office in March 2016, and made them public. Previously, there was no such mandate. So, if the public found out about any behaviors violating the directives, they could complain. But if they think it doesn’t concern them, the conditions will be the same as before. That’s why we need awareness.

People also need to have resistance—not to give bribes. In our custom, there is a saying that “giving is the key to success.” So, when there is pressure, people are easily bribed. Government has the responsibility to raise awareness, and so do the NGOs and individuals, too.