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Myanmar's Anti-Corruption Fight Gathers Steam

FILE - Win Myint, newly elected president of Myanmar, left, and Myanmar's leader Aung San Suu Kyi leave the parliament in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, March 28, 2018.
FILE - Win Myint, newly elected president of Myanmar, left, and Myanmar's leader Aung San Suu Kyi leave the parliament in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, March 28, 2018.

Myanmar's anti-corruption commission has in recent weeks sued a senior bureaucrat and begun investigating a disgraced minister, indicating a crackdown on corruption promised by the government is finally happening. Often criticized as weak and unambitious, the commission's stepped-up efforts suggest the Southeast Asian country is joining a regional trend.

On May 25, the Myanmar President’s Office confirmed the resignation of Planning and Finance Minister Kyaw Win, after the Anti-Corruption Commission revealed he was being investigated for bribery. The commission is also pursuing a criminal case against Food and Drug Administration Director-General Than Htut for allegedly demanding more than $11,000 in bribes from a construction company.

Anti-Corruption Commission chairman Aung Kyi told VOA that, at this stage in the probe against Kyaw Win, “I do not have any obligation to reveal what type of corruption he committed.” The commission has announced they delivered the investigation report to the President's Office on May 25, but its findings aren't yet public.

Last week, Myanmar’s upper house of parliament passed amendments to the Anti-Corruption Law that would grant the commission powers to investigate conspicuously wealthy office-holders on their own initiative. Currently, the commission, which was reconstituted in November, must wait for complaints to be submitted to it with “strong evidence.”

Political will

The commission had previously only pursued cases against low-ranking officials, and was noticeably absent in large scandals. One example was the multi-million-dollar misappropriation of development funds by the former chief minister of Magwe Region, who was merely ordered to return a portion of the money last year.

Ko Ye, national coordinator for the Myanmar Alliance for Transparency and Accountability, told VOA the recent moves seemed to signal genuine “political will,” which he considered the most important ingredient in any anti-corruption fight.

Marie Cauchois Pegie, advisor to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime — which is helping Myanmar meet its commitments under the U.N. Convention against Corruption it ratified in 2012 — told VOA the amendment was clearly a step forward.

However, the inadequate protection of whistle-blowers remains a critical shortcoming. Complainants risk counter-suits in a court system that many see as beholden to powerful interests.

With the amendment, the commission sought a reduction in maximum prison sentences for complainants providing “false” information from five years to six months. However, the upper house only approved a reduction to three years.

The corruption law mandates that “necessary protection” be provided to those supplying evidence. But, as Pegie notes, “implementation is not really foreseen,” and the country lacks a witness protection program.

Going after tigers

At the start of his tenure as finance minister in 2016, Kyaw Win earned a reputation for dishonesty by listing a Ph.D. on his resume from a made-up university. He has since presided over a slowdown in the economy and growing frustration among businessmen and investors, making him a politically expedient target.

Myanmar’s new president Win Myint, at his inauguration in March, declared fighting corruption a top priority. His first public meeting was with the Anti-Corruption Commission, in which he commanded them to be bolder in the face of interference from powerful figures.

Ahead of the 2020 election, the National League for Democracy government is anxious to deflect widespread criticism over the slowing pace of reform.

Myanmar political analyst Yan Myo Thein told VOA pervasive corruption in everyday life could turn an anti-graft drive into a vote winner. Yet, he said this would require the government to keep “going after tigers, not just flies.”

However, Hunter Marston, analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington, told VOA it was possibly too late for such a drive to pay electoral dividends by 2020. Given Myanmar’s sluggish court system, this is plausible. He suggested a winning strategy might better focus on rural poverty-alleviation measures.

A regional mix

Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, the region’s mix of one-party states, multi-party democracies and military regimes make it hard to draw clear lines between the aims or approaches of governments conducting anti-graft drives.

In Vietnam, a crackdown since 2016 has seen ex members of the Communist Party Politburo and Central Committee sentenced, and dozens tried in single cases.

Carl Thayer, emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales in Canberra, told VOA this has addressed a genuine spiraling of graft over the previous ten years, mostly linked to giant state-owned enterprises and associated banks.

However, he said a desire by the Communist Party to reassert control of the state has been a key impetus, and he downplayed the role of public opinion. Any recent popular dividend, he said, may have been “cancelled out by a crackdown on free expression and Internet communication.”

Aung Tun, a Myanmar independent researcher on corruption, said this authoritarianism made Vietnam an inappropriate model. He suggested Indonesia, a multi-party democracy with a strongly empowered anti-corruption commission and robust civil society, could point the way ahead.

However, Indonesia’s commission has pursued high-level targets since 2003, while corruption remains endemic. Its example suggests that clean government requires a degree of societal change that could take a generation, or more.