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Tentacles of dictatorship reach deep into Myanmar's new democracy

A decades-old culture of corruption is strangling the country's ambition to become a prosperous player on the world stage

The people of Myanmar deserve a clean and accountable government that represents the interests of the nation. Instead they are victims of a culture of corruption and impunity at the highest levels, forged over the decades of military dictatorships.

Under the country's past crony-military regimes, the public and private sectors were harshly managed by the elite and generals under a rigid framework of incentives and repression. Among the many legacies of this management is the present Constitution drafted by the military in 2008, an instrument of repression which lacks a bill of rights or a social contract between the rulers and ruled. Rather than enshrining human freedom and integrity, this Constitution has maintained Myanmar's longstanding culture of corruption.

Toothless anti-graft law in place

The hybrid military-civilian parliament enacted an anti-corruption law in August, but only after opposition from President Thein Sein. The result is a law not fit to fight corruption that remains rampant under the military-drafted charter. Moreover, decisions taken by Thein Sein not to punish former members of the military-crony regime have added to public scepticism over his administration's will to battle graft. The truth is that the former generals now in parliament are ignoring widespread demands for objectives, strategies and deadlines for anti-corruption reforms, preferring instead to send countless proposals to donors in Washington, Brussels, London, Tokyo and Canberra.

Many Southeast Asian countries already boast anti-corruption agencies with strong powers to investigate and prosecute graft cases. A similarly sharp-toothed watchdog for Myanmar has become a basic requirement in efforts to raise its people's living standards and well-being. The country recently ratified the United Nations Convention Against Corruption, adding urgency for Myanmar to set up such an agency, which would boost confidence among donors, consumers and investors, increasing foreign direct investment, jobs and economic growth.

International investors scared off

The current anti-corruption law does not require Cabinet members, cronies and military generals to declare their assets. In addition, anti-graft tasks are assigned to the Bureau of Special Investigation (BSI), which answers to the Home Affairs Ministry. These moves do not tally with the country's ambitions to join the modern Internet-connected world of trade and commerce after decades of isolation. Why would international investors choose Myanmar when corruption there is still so systematic and widespread? Without global confidence in the country's anti-corruption reforms, there will be none of the international knowledge transfer, capital investment and technology necessary to boosting living standards in Myanmar.

But drafting and implementing such reforms needs the participation of an independent civil society. The stakes are high: child labour, sex trafficking, the narcotics trade, hardwoods smuggling, small-arms trade and money-laundering are all being fuelled by corruption at high levels in Myanmar. And these activities have been spilling over the border into neighbouring countries since the 1970s. As the new Chair of Asean, Myanmar now has the chance to curb this blight on the region and step confidently onto the stage of international trade. But it cannot do so without first tackling graft.

The challenges and obstacles to an anti-corruption commission come from the military hardliners, politicians and cronies who, for five decades, have run the country without any overarching policy, strategy or check-and-balance mechanisms. The integrity, legitimacy and success of this commission depends on the political will, skill and strategy of the country's leaders. But the UNDP, World Bank, Asia Development Bank and global aid agencies also have a role to play in pressing the government to set up such a body.

Watchdog with real teeth needed

Myanmar needs a graft-busting body that focuses on four aspects: investigation, prevention, education and policy coordination among state and non-state actors. Its fundamental requirements are independence, integrity, legitimacy and power to enforce the law. Constitutional independence from military and political meddling will enable the commission to battle the influence of the generals, cronies and the many politicians with conflicts of interest.

Commission members must be carefully selected and their term in office limited so as to reduce the likelihood of untoward influence. As in cases elsewhere, the commission should be accountable to a parliamentary joint committee. It should be given the power to examine the assets of Cabinet members, public officials and private individuals. Like Singapore's Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau and Thailand's National Anti-Corruption Commission, Myanmar's body must have the right to seize the assets of officials and private individuals.

This power is necessary to curb the rampant vote-buying, election fraud and vote-rigging in the 2015 election, rules for which have been set to benefit former members of the military now in government. The financing of political parties must also be monitored so as to battle corruption that we see even in more mature democratic states such as Italy, Thailand, the Philippines and South Korea. Meanwhile, the election commission must be cleared of ex-military cronies, and political parties play their part by forging anti-corruption platforms with strategies for cleaning up Myanmar's graft-tainted image on the global stage.

However, without the public's participation in anti-corruption reform, its strategies and commission will fail. A nationwide campaign is needed to educate the public and embolden them to fight this scourge. Whistleblowers must be encouraged and guaranteed anonymity when they report corruption.

The task for our new graft-busting body will be to fight corruption on three fronts - in politics, the bureaucracy, and among military-crony networks. This widespread culture of graft has flourished for decades. Now is the time to begin cutting out this cancer to give ordinary citizens the chance to help this country grow.

Naing Ko Ko is a former Rotary Peace Scholar and current Visiting Scholar at the Regulatory Institutions Network, Australian National University.


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