In February 2014 the Myanmar Government appointed the Anti-Corruption Commission to address official corruption and graft. The Commission, mandated by the 2013 Anti-Corruption Act, is considered part of the third phase of Myanmar's planned reforms.
The latest initiative is timely.
So far this year, there have been several reports and related allegations of corruption in the judicial sector. Additionally, Transparency International's updated corruption index continues to portray Myanmar as one of the world's most corrupt countries (notwithstanding a questionable methodology and data set).
During his term as president, Thein Sein's rhetoric against corruption has generally been strong. In his 2011 inaugural speech, Thein Sein stressed the need to address bribery and corruption. In late 2012 he criticised his own government, claiming that bribery and corruption were interfering with Myanmar's reforms. And in early 2013, he formed an 'anti-corruption working committee' headed by Vice President Dr Sai Mauk Kham to further anti-corruption efforts.
It is the past acts of corruption and graft, however, that are most likely to challenge the effectiveness of the new Commission.
Although the Commission's formation appears positive, it has been met with criticism, most notably because of the inclusion in its ranks of former senior military officials, who may be unwilling or unable to effectively police and investigate their old colleagues. This criticism is not without merit.
In 2012, military MPs rejected a proposal to have all Union, State and regional MPs (many of whom were former military officials) declare their assets and interests for the public record, claiming this provision already existed in Article 68 of Myanmar's 2008 Constitution. This view was later supported by the Attorney General, who claimed that there were similar provisions in the Union Government Law. But so far, there is no evidence that officials appointed by the president have actually made these declarations.
It is easy to understand why some current and former officials may not want this kind of scrutiny. Over the years, there have been many reports of officials engaging in corruption and graft, sometimes for personal financial gain or to help out friends and family. There are also reports of officials' families exploiting familial links to secure contracts, which are sometimes awarded in opaque circumstances.
It is highly likely that numerous officials (and potentially family members) were involved in and profited from each corrupt deal or act of graft that occurred. Therefore, an investigation into one suspect deal or case is likely to involve several people and possibly their families. How comfortable the current government is with publicly uncovering years of corruption and graft, the extent of which may be wide-reaching and involve numerous officials of varying seniority and their families, is unclear.
It is also difficult to speculate whether those found guilty would report others involved to reduce punishments. This could lead to the public identification of many corrupt officials, but it is highly likely that many players involved have a vested interest in ensuring investigations are unsuccessful, so they may attempt to deter or interfere with them.
All of this assumes that the political will to push this initiative actually exists.
Implementing and enforcing tough anti-corruption measures sends a positive message to the international community. But the implications for Myanmar's business community, much of which was built using official connections and opaque deals, are unclear. Moreover, negative perceptions will also affect 'legitimate' businesses and those which grew without engaging in widespread corruption or graft.
Thein Sein may be sincere about wanting to eliminate corruption and improve transparency in Myanmar. And if he plans to serve only one term, he may be more willing to push reforms that are likely to be unpopular with some of his colleagues. However, whether those responsible for enforcing these measures share his political will, or instead have enough of a vested interest to ensure they are not fully enforced, remains to be seen.
Myanmar's ability to address official corruption, and the will to enforce anti-corruption measures in a meaningful way, will be tested in the coming years. This may highlight a gap between Thein Sein's rhetoric and what actually occurs in practice.
Photo by Flickr user El Scrapeo.