A new glimmer of hope for combating the scourge of corruption

The appointment of a new Anti-Corruption Commission headed by a respected former minister signals the start of a fresh campaign to tackle a problem that shames Myanmar.

By SITHU AUNG MYINT | FRONTIER

ON NOVEMBER 23, the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw unanimously endorsed President U Htin Kyaw’s recommendation to reconstitute the Anti-Corruption Commission and appoint U Aung Kyi, a retired major-general and former government minister, as its chairman. The 12-member commission was formed by the Union Solidarity and Development Party government in 2014 and its failure to achieve any notable successes in tackling pervasive corruption has been a huge disappointment for the people and politicians. The move by the National League for Democracy government to re-form the commission has again raised a glimmer of hope that firm and decisive action will be taken against corruption. But will this latest government attempt to combat corruption succeed?

On Transparency International’s latest annual Corruption Perceptions Index, Myanmar ranked 136th out of 176 nations and territories, though that was an improvement from its ranking of 180 in 2011. It suggests there has been some progress in fighting corruption since the commission was appointed – but not enough. The people, including intellectuals and politicians, have been discouraged by the outgoing commission’s performance and disappointed that it was unable to expose any big corruption or money laundering cases.

The commission was formed following the enactment in 2013 of the Anti-Corruption Law. One big problem with the law is that the commission can only investigate corruption if it receives a complaint. This means the commission cannot act on many cases of large-scale corruption, even when they are well known to the public.

During the term of the previous commission, from March 2014 to October 2017, it received 4,353 written complaints, including more than 3,000 on which it could not take action because they were considered to be outside its authority. A total of 1,077 complaints were referred to ministries to investigate, resulting in action against 37 people. Except for seven public servants who were sacked, most received minor punishment. During its term of three years and seven months, the previous commission investigated only 61 cases, raising doubts about its efficacy and that of the Anti-Corruption Law.

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The commission’s new chairman, Aung Kyi, enjoys broad respect because of a reputation for being clean and ethical. These traits are a rarity among the generals of the former military junta, in which he was minister for labour, a portfolio he held in the USDP government until he was appointed minister for information in 2012. In interviews with journalists after his appointment as the panel’s new chair, Aung Kyi revealed an understanding of the scale of the corruption problem and a determination to increase commission’s effectiveness.

Aung Kyi said corruption encompassed not only petty bribery that is common in everyday life, but also graft on a grand scale that causes the loss of revenue and natural resources. He said the Anti-Corruption Law needed to be amended to enable the commission to investigate such cases, otherwise it could do nothing, no matter how blatant the case.

Aung Kyi acknowledged that the previous commission was regarded as ineffective because its investigations resulted in a few people being jailed and disciplinary action against low-ranking public servants.

Aung Kyi said he would have three priorities as commission chair. The first, he said, would be to tackle the pervasive corruption among public servants. The second would be to take action against large-scale corruption and money laundering. His final priority would be to improve Myanmar’s shameful ranking on the Transparency International index.

Aung Kyi’s reputation for rectitude, his achievements in government and comments about his role as commission chair have raised expectations for resolute action against corruption. However, if the Anti-Corruption Law is amended and investigations are launched into corruption on a grand scale, those likely to be affected include associates of former dictators, former generals, and the heads of some prominent companies.

Aung Kyi is under no illusion about the difficulties ahead. “There will be many challenges,” he told journalists.

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