Friday, March 23, 2012

Social Cancer of Corruption Still Metastasizing in Burma

In Burma, bribery is a way of life. There seems to be no escaping it, in all of its many forms. From the tea or beer money paid to low-ranking officials to the car keys and cookie tins full of cash or gold reserved for those with real influence, corruption exists at almost every level of society.

Most Burmese grow up thinking that the only way to get things done is by making “donations” to the right people. Even schoolchildren know that their parents are under constant pressure to pay gratuities to their schools and teachers.

Graft is a family affair in Burma. Ministers and directors of governmental departments rarely take their kickbacks directly. A particularly weighty gift of biscuits delivered into the hands of their wives is the preferred way of letting senior officials know how much their help is appreciated.

In Burma, there is no happy occasion that can’t double as an opportunity for slipping a gift to someone who matters. The sons and daughters of the powerful are not burdened with oversized presents when they marry, but they invariably acquire quite a collection of car keys, usually to the latest Mercedes or SUVs. When former Sr. Gen. Than Shwe gave away his daughter in 2006, for instance, the happy couple reportedly received 70 sets of keys.

For all its ubiquity, however, corruption is still a taboo topic. That’s why many Burmese have taken a keen interest in the release of a government audit report submitted to Parliament earlier this month that revealed rampant malfeasance in six ministries operating under the former junta.

Nobody is surprised to learn about wrongdoing among public officials. In Burma, it’s as natural as wind and rain. But it’s a little startling, to say the least, when the government itself decides to shed some light on these activities.

According to the report, the Ministry of Information, the Ministry of Co-operatives, the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation, the Ministry of Mining and the Ministries of Industry No. 1 and No. 2 were all guilty of gross abuse of power and misuse of state resources.

The amount of money in question, amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars, would be remarkable in any society. In a country as impoverished as Burma, it is breathtaking.

What’s all the more disturbing is the fact that each of these ministries was led by someone who still wields power in the current government. Information Minister Kyaw Hsan, for instance, held the same position under the old regime, and the former Minister for Industry No. 1, Aung Thaung, is the chief negotiator in peace talks with ethnic armed groups.

Nearly a year has passed since President Thein Sein vowed to tackle corruption in his inaugural address.

“The most important task of the new administration is to work together to create good governance and clean government,” he said at the time, urging all levels of government to be transparent and accountable.

Despite these words, however, Burma still scored extremely poorly on corruption last year. In December, Berlin-based Transparency International ranked it 180th out of 182 countries (tied with Afghanistan) in its “Corruption Perceptions Index 2011.”

Soon after the audit findings were submitted to Parliament, Lower House Speaker Shwe Mann agreed to discuss forming a parliamentary anti-corruption commission.

It’s a welcome move, but already there are doubts about how far a commission would go to address the issue, given that Shwe Mann’s own son, Aung Thet Mann, has reportedly received various lucrative government business concessions for his Ayeyar Shwe War Company. He is on a US blacklist, together with other sons of current government officials.

In fact, it would be difficult to come up with the name of a single senior official who is not in some way linked to shady business dealings. In Burma, that’s just one of the perks of public life.

Last year, a senior presidential adviser warned that any effort to stamp out graft would meet with resistance from people in high places, and sure enough, the backlash has already begun. Last week, the state-run New Light of Myanmar reported that the Ministry of Mines would sue the Rangoon-based journal The Voice for publishing allegations of corruption.

If Shwe Mann and others who claim to want a clean, graft-free government are sincere, they will begin their anti-corruption drive with a full disclosure of their own wealth and that of their closest relatives. This transparency must be accompanied by a concerted effort to ensure that any commission they create to address this issue is independent and fully empowered to prosecute offenders. The laws must treat corruption as the social cancer that it is.

By Kyaw Zwa Moe managing editor of the Irrawaddy magazine.

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