The uphill battle against corruption in Myanmar


Two hotel high rise towers partially obscures the skyline of old Yangon with a view of Yangon river in the background. Photo: Romeo Gacad/AFP

According to the United Nations, corruption is ‘the misuse or the abuse of public office for private gain.’ It is very likely that anybody who has lived in Myanmar for any period of time will have, unknowingly or knowingly, experienced corruption in some form.

While tracking corruption is not an exact science and there are a number of different methodologies for measuring it, Myanmar does not fare well whichever data set you use. According to Forbes, Myanmar is the 4th joint most corrupt country in Asia, with a corruption rate of 40%.  According to Transparency International, Myanmar is currently ranked as the 136th most corrupt country in the world. Compared to the situation in 2011, when only North Korea and Somalia were more corrupt, (with Myanmar ranking as the 180th most corrupt country in the world) this is, relatively, a big improvement.  However, in absolute terms, the situation still isn’t great.

When one thinks of corruption in Myanmar, there are numerous examples to choose from. Take the case of a friend of mine* - a restaurant owner in Bagan who got arrested for selling alcohol without a license. He said the reality of the situation is that most places in Bagan don't have licenses, but they just pay off the police on a monthly basis. However, one month, he wasn’t able to afford the payoff, and as a result found himself taken to a cell. In order to even get his case to court, he had to pay a total 5 separate bribes - to get his identity verified with the prison clerk, to get the paperwork done at the local government office, and so on. It just so happened that one of the clerks was a family friend, so he was offered a discount on the 'standard bribe' from 10,000 kyats to 5,000 kyats. Finally, once he was able to get his case to a judge - who again he had to bribe -  he was found guilty of violating alcohol laws and fined 10,000ks. His total bribe payments to get the case to court were over 150,000ks.

Another example involved somebody who used to live in Yangon, where they worked for an INGO, which among other things, purported to fight corruption in Myanmar. They said that the INGO used to pay an extra 5,000ks whenever they sent a visa to be processed at the immigration as tea money - nothing terrible, but quite interesting when you consider one of their tasks is to fight corruption and bribery.

Finally, take the case of someone else who works at a multinational company in Myanmar which works closely with the Myanmar government.  Their company policy dictates that they cannot give bribes – however, they said that in order to get around this, what happens is that multinational companies will buy bottles of Johnnie Walker Blue Label (worth around $250) to give to officials as gifts – which is completely legal - who will then take the unopened bottle back to an alcohol shop and exchange it for cash. These bottles will change hands for years without even being opened, essentially becoming a bizarre kind of alternative currency.

What is overwhelmingly clear is that these examples of corruption are very different. A huge distinction can, and ought to be made. While corruption is not a good thing, in some cases it can be understandable – such as in the case of the civil servant ‘illegally’ taking 5,000ks to process a form.  ‘Blue label’ corruption, on the other hand, is inexcusable, and despite not being illegal per se, has a pernicious effect on civil society in Myanmar.

Why? Returning to the earlier definition of corruption, there is a huge difference between the senior official accepting a bottle of $250 whiskey, and a civil servant taking a 5000ks processing fee, in both senses of the definition. While the civil servant is arguably not misusing public office – they are simply doing their job, and in terms of personal gain, with salaries as low as theirs – some level of personal gain can be permitted. However, the senior government official does not need the bottle of blue label as supplementary income anywhere near as much, and, given that a multinational company deems it worth presenting this gift, one can be quite sure that some abuse of public office is occurring – the company will expect to receive some sort of preferential treatment in return for the gift.

Indeed, one of the main reasons for corruption among the low-level public servants is that government salaries are simply inadequate to cover the cost of supporting a family, and thereby make it necessary for them to seek supplementary “contributions”.

The normalization of bribe taking shows just how rife corruption is in Myanmar. However, it needs to be looked at in terms of the bigger picture. Corruption breeds corruption, and given how corrupt Myanmar has been for so long, change will take time. Only once government capacity is at a level whereby simple processes such as renewing a visa, or applying for an alcohol license are simplified, and, more importantly, the people who are actually working in these departments, are paid sufficiently so that they don’t have to ask for additional payments, will the culture of corruption start to decline.

This small-scale corruption is motivated mainly by necessity rather than greed and in that sense is not difficult to resolve – a more efficient tax system which can afford to pay civil servants properly will go a long way to addressing the issue.

In the meantime, as well as strengthening the tax base – certainly not an easy task - more efforts should be made to develop local government capacity and to formalize these informal payments rather than to simply pay the tea money and perpetuate the problem – especially in the case of INGOs. Multinational companies should be more aware of the effect that they have and make sure that even legal corruption is stamped out.

Ultimately, there is a huge difference between a formalized, official 5,000ks visa processing fee and an informal, unofficial 5,000ks under the table fee, and an even bigger difference between an insubstantial, necessary 5,000ks under the table fee and the substantial and superfluous bottle of whiskey given as a gift.

*Names have been withheld

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