Stopping the rot at MICA

The government must legislate to make sure that some of the practices that cast such doubt on MICA are not repeated.

IT WAS the name – the Myanmar International Cooperation Agency – that piqued the interest of Frontier: Why did it mimic the Japan International Cooperation Agency? If it was focused on “international cooperation”, why did it not have an online presence, or an office outside of the Ministry of Livestock, Fisheries and Rural Development? Why was it never mentioned in English-language media reports? Where were the notices for tender? Why did nobody seem to know anything about it?

We dug around, discovering what we could. The subsequent article, published in September 2016, was one of the longest we’ve published. Astonishingly, after being translated into Myanmar language it also became our most read. Clearly we weren’t alone in wanting to know more about MICA.

A high-level source later provided us with more material showing that nearly all of MICA’s contracts were signed in the final months of the U Thein Sein administration. There was a flurry of deals done in the final weeks of March 2016, as government ministers were (literally) cleaning out their Nay Pyi Taw residences. In the interests of transparency – something that never seemed to bother those in charge of MICA – we’ve published the full list so readers can make up their own minds about its activities.

This month, the government announced that it had already begun taking steps to abolish the agency. This is a welcome step. Perceptions that it was linked to corruption made MICA damaged goods. It could not be salvaged. New allegations are being made about the legality of its activities, and the questions that initially grabbed our attention have also still not been answered satisfactorily.

There is a danger that they never will. MICA’s operational staff were drawn from the upper reaches of the Ministry of Livestock, Fisheries and Irrigation. They are now serving in the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Irrigation.

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If there was anything nefarious about MICA’s operations – and that remains an open question – then an intra-ministry probe runs the risk of being derailed. Let’s not forget that just six months ago the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Irrigation told Frontier that it was committed to continuing MICA.

The government should take the advice of some National League for Democracy lawmakers and form an investigation team comprising a range of independent experts, including lawyers, lawmakers and those with experience in the fisheries and livestock sectors. After interviewing key personnel, learning about MICA’s operations and examining the contracts it oversaw, the team should then make its findings public.

But the government can go much further, by legislating to make sure that some of the practices that cast such doubt on MICA are not repeated.

First, a law to standardise the process of issuing tenders. It should include guidelines on how tenders are publicised, how long bidders should be given to respond, which contracts do not need to be put out to tender, and how the winning bidders are chosen. It could have an appeals and review process. It needs to be properly enforced.

Second, a law to prohibit ministries from signing contracts above a certain size during the “lame duck” period after the election but before the next government is sworn in. In Myanmar, this period is almost five months (it could be shortened by holding the election later).

The previous government used this window to finalise a huge array of deals. These may have been well intentioned, but certainly created the perception that officials were lining their pockets and doling out favours before leaving office.

These measures may cause some inconvenience, but people in power need to be protected from themselves for the good of the country. Where there is ambiguity or opportunity, there will always be some who find the temptation too strong to resist.

This editorial originally appeared in the February 16 issue of Frontier. 

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