Since Myanmar's political transition began some years ago, the Myanmar Police Force (MPF) has started an ambitious plan of reform in an effort to transform itself into a more professional institution, a topic addressed by Andrew Selth here on The Interpreter. But the MPF still faces significant reputational problems in Myanmar, with a recent Asia Foundation survey suggesting the public holds the Force in low regard.

A Myanmar Police Force officer, 25 April 2013. (Flickr/Burma Partnership.)

This is likely due in part to police corruption. 

Corruption in Myanmar is nothing new. The Thein Sein Government has publicly acknowledged corruption as a problem, and it has set up high-level bodies to address the issue. However, the outcomes of these initiatives are questionable, and reports of corruption and misconduct in the police force continue.

Some reports suggest a level of opportunism, such as police taking advantage of the curfew in Mandalay following the 2014 riots by extorting bribes from locals wanting to break the curfew. Others suggest ingrained practices, such as claims by a serving MPF official that continued corruption and bribery was one of the reasons why counter-narcotic efforts had failed in Myanmar. Other reports allege that some MPF officials directly profited from the illegal narcotics trade in ethnic regions such as eastern Shan State. 

In Rakhine State, many claims involve the Rohingya people. Police are alleged to be involved in people smuggling operations, and they are said to have accepted bribes from drug dealers and even extorted local businessmen. Some reports state that when the MPF took over the Border Guard Force in Rakhine State from the military, some MPF officers merely continued the corrupt practices of their predecessors.

On the rare occasion that it responds publicly, the MPF normally denies corruption allegations. In some cases it has taken legal action against those making claims, such as a recent case where the MPF charged a Bago-based local journalist who claimed members of the regional Special Branch were soliciting bribes from local illegal gambling operators. There has been no comment from the Force on whether this allegation would be internally investigated.

Although some cases, such as the arrest of five regional police commanders in 2011, are only made public through the media, the MPF is getting better at publicly acknowledging corruption. In 2014, the MPF said it was taking action against its own, and in 2013 the MPF announced the arrest of two senior police officers involved in drug smuggling operations. 

This is a positive step, but whether it is having a lasting effect on the culture of the Force or providing enough of a deterrent is unclear. 

Although many instances of corruption or misconduct are relatively straightforward, there are complicating factors. For instance, for many years police were expected to pay their own investigative expenses and rarely, if ever, received any official compensation. That is, police were required to pay to do their job. 

Considering their low wages and the fact that police departments are generally poorly resourced, many police were reluctant to use their own money, resulting in officers seeking investigation funds from complainants. While understandable, this is far from ideal. Requesting money from the public damages a police force's reputation, even if it is to help enforce the law rather than to obstruct it. But the MPF has recognised this problem and  is attempting to eliminate the practice. In December 2013, the local media reported that the MPF would fund all investigation expenses starting from 2014. But as of the start of 2015, police contacts advised me that this initiative had not yet been fully implemented.

There are other positive signs. The MPF is likely to benefit significantly from the current EU-sponsored training and capacity building. So far, this has included training for the police riot battalions, community policing initiatives and assistance with public relations, including developing a media centre to improve communication. 

But as Andrew Selth has said, while international engagement may bring some change to the MPF, the influence of outsiders is likely to be small. As Selth argues, in the long term the MPF is going to be more strongly influenced by support from the central government in Naypyidaw, significant internal cultural shifts, and stronger police-community engagement.

This puts the MPF in a difficult situation; until it can address police corruption in such a way that it improves the public's attitudes towards it, it will lack the public support it needs to ensure its reforms are effective. And without support for its reforms, it may not be as motivated to address corruption.