Draft changes to corruption law raise hope, but will they catch any big fish?

The Anti-Corruption Commission appointed in 2014 had little discernable impact, but a new team under former information minister U Aung Kyi is pushing for changes to give it more bite.

By SITHU AUNG MYINT | FRONTIER

THE DISGRACE of corruption was the focus of a seminar in Yangon on January 22 and 23. Hosted by the Anti-Corruption Commission in cooperation with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the event was held under the slogan, “Let’s eradicate corruption to raise dignity”, and featured a series of academic papers.

Among the 27 experts who presented papers at the event was the eminent economist U Myint, who told the audience he hoped the commission would catch some “big fish” and gain the confidence of the public. What he meant is that he hopes the commission will investigate public figures known to be corrupt and send them to trial so they will be punished as an example.

The response to U Myint’s comment from commission chairman U Aung Kyi highlighted a weakness in previous efforts to combat corruption. Aung Kyi, a former general and minister under the junta and the Union Solidarity and Development Party government, said that under the existing Anti-Corruption Law, the commission could handle minor cases and it was improbable that it could catch any big fish.

Despite Aung Kyi’s comment, it should not be assumed that there is no hope for eradicating the scourge of corruption in Myanmar. On January 19, the government released for public feedback draft amendments to the Anti-Corruption Law. The proposed changes have raised hope that the 12-member commission, which has pushed for reform under Aung Kyi since it was re-constituted last November, will no longer be catching only minnows.

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Aung Kyi has said that corruption was not only about trifling cases, which hundreds of thousands of people are likely engaged in, but also “grand corruption”. This includes the exploitation on a large-scale of valuable natural resources in which large and powerful institutions may be complicit.

The commission must have legal teeth and resources to tackle grand corruption effectively.

The Anti-Corruption Law enacted under the USDP government on August 7, 2013, included 73 sections. Minor changes were made to the law three times over four years. The latest amendments involve about 20 changes. If they are approved it will be the fourth time the law has been amended.

One of the amendments involves section 16(d) of the law and broadens the power of the commission to launch investigations. It states that the commission may launch a preliminary investigation into alleged corruption as a result of a complaint or information received. This differs significantly from the original law, which states that the commission can act only in response to a complaint.

The proposed change would enable the commission to regard indications of unusual wealth as information justifying an investigation and could be highly effective in combating corruption. For example, the commission could launch an investigation into a public servant known to have acquired wealth or assets clearly beyond their means.

Another proposed amendment, to section 59, is aimed at encouraging more complaints – or discouraging fewer, depending on how you look at it. It states that anyone who lodges a complaint without reliable evidence with the intention to disgrace or discredit a person will be liable to a maximum six months’ imprisonment and a fine. Under the original law, anyone convicted of lodging a false complaint with malice faced up to five years in jail. It was intended to intimidate anyone who wanted to make a complaint.

Another amendment seeks to give the Anti-Corruption Commission a greater presence throughout the country. The proposed change to section 36(b) would enable the commission to open branch offices in districts and towns, with the permission of the national government.

Other proposed changes would give the commission a broader focus. Instead of just targeting public servants, it would follow international best practice and also examine corruption involving private companies and civilians. Another of the draft amendments concerns tender notices involving government money.

If the draft amendments are enacted, the commission under Aung Kyi will have the legal teeth it needs to pursue the big fish involved in grand corruption, graft, money-laundering and other illicit activities.

Success in the campaign against corruption will help to alleviate Myanmar’s shame over its poor ranking on the list released each year by Berlin-based corruption watchdog, Transparency International. In its latest Corruption Perceptions Index, released early last year, Myanmar was ranked 136th out of 176 countries and territories, up from 147th in 2015.

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