Following the money

WHEN U WIN Myint was appointed Myanmar’s new president at the end of March, there was much speculation about how his approach to the country’s leadership would differ from his predecessor, U Htin Kyaw.

Htin Kyaw, who stood down from the role citing a need to rest, was considered a ceremonial leader, with State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi taking charge on the country’s most important issues.

As Pyithu Hluttaw speaker, Win Myint carved out a reputation as a shrewd political actor, and there was some hope that he would take a more active approach to the presidency.

The early signs are promising. In his new year address, Win Myint was much more specific about the government’s agenda than Htin Kyaw.

Win Myint said his administration would tackle major issues such as housing for civil servants, confronting the country’s energy needs as well as tackling the ongoing land issues across the country. He also highlighted the scourge of corruption.  

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Win Myint admitted that graft has “taken root in most departments” and he called on the public, the media and the Anti-Corruption Committee to work together to bring to light potential cases. He also urged the committee to establish an action plan to tackle the issue.

A week before that address, on April 10, Win Myint met senior members of the commission, including chairman U Aung Kyi, and he urged them to carry out their duties “decisively and without discrimination”, and to alert him to any “interference” in their investigations.

Following the money

It’s difficult to know whether this political support was a factor in the events that unfolded on April 20, when Dr Than Htut, director of the Food and Drug Administration, was arrested for allegedly taking more than K150 million from a company that had won a tender from his department.

The commission says its investigation started late last year, well before Win Myint took office. But the key decision in any case is whether to prosecute, and this seems to have been made only after the meeting with the new president.

Than Htut is the first high-ranking government official to face corruption charges since the commission was re-formed last November. He stands accused of having “abused his authority” by demanding the money, which the commission said had been spent making significant improvements to two properties he owned.

It is important to note at this point Than Htut only stands accused of corruption and he should have the opportunity to defend himself at a public trial.

But the arrest of a high-ranking government official is an encouraging sign of intent from the commission – a sign that it will not be afraid to take on powerful vested interests.

Corruption exists at all levels of business and government in Myanmar, and much more needs to be done beyond a handful of arrests. The only way to tackle certain forms of corruption will be to overhaul the way the government works, to amend or strip out the unnecessary and vague rules that enable officials to demand under-the-table payments.

When Frontier investigated corruption at Yangon port earlier this year, Customs agents interviewed for the story said that unofficial under-the-table payments to process documents at the port were “mandatory and institutionalised”. This is hardly a secret: anyone who has dealt with Customs understands it. Yet there’s been no serious attempt to tackle the problem.

Another crucial reform required in order to tackle this problem are amendments to the 2013 Anti-Corruption Law, to bring it in line with the UN Convention Against Corruption, which Myanmar ratified in late 2012.

Proposed changes to the law were submitted to parliament in March and are another encouraging step. They include giving greater protection to whistleblowers, establishing more commission offices around the country and – perhaps most importantly – allowing the commission to launch its own investigations. At present the commission only launches an investigation when a complaint is received (as in the case of Than Htut).

There is still a long way to go in the fight against corruption. But if the government can empower the Anti-Corruption Commission through legislation and political support, it will represent an important step forward.

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