Despite recent reforms, Burma was again listed as one of the most corrupt countries in the world in a survey by Transparency International (TI) on Wednesday, which ranked it as the 5th-worst country in terms of public sector corruption among 176 nations. TI said reforms had not improved Burma’s ranking, as new anti-corruption measures remain tentative and their impact has yet to show up in its research.
TI’s Corruption Perception Index 2012 placed Burma at 172, just above Sudan, Afghanistan, North Korea and Somalia—all of which are either war-torn or deeply isolated countries. Burma’s neighbor Laos fared only somewhat better, ranking 160th, while Thailand came in at 88.
With an index score of 15 Burma was far below the score of 50 at which public institutions are considered transparent. In Southeast Asia, only Singapore and Brunei scored higher than 50.
Burma moved up eight places from the 2011 ranking, but TI said this constitutes no significant improvement as seven countries that ranked above Burma last year were dropped in the new index.
“Myanmar is at the very bottom […] which means the public sector is perceived to be extremely corrupt,” said Samantha Grant, Southeast Asia program coordinator at the Berlin-based organization.
Burma has corruption “issues across many public sector institutions,” Grant told The Irrawaddy, adding that TI was only beginning to understand the full depth of these issues as the country opens up.
Burma’s reform process has not impacted the 2012 corruption ranking, she said, as some of the information for the survey was collected two years ago. Grant added that it would also take a while for the new anti-corruption measures to change the perception of public sector corruption among business professionals. Their opinions inform TI’s corruption ranking.
Recent anti-corruption measures include a requirement for ministers and officials appointed by President Thein Sein to declare their financial assets and interests, while the Lower House approved a committee with the power to investigate corruption in the judicial system.
The government has also begun drafting a new Anti-Corruption Law to replace the 1948 Suppression of Corruption Act, according to an announcement by the Home Affairs Ministry in the state-run newspaper The New Light of Myanmar on Nov. 30.
The ministry said bribery persisted in Burma’s public and private sector and called the practice “an unacceptable and unpardonable misconduct.” It appealed to citizens to report corruption anonymously to its head office or to the director-general of the Bureau of Special Investigation.
Grant said TI was encouraged by such steps but urged the government to show the political will to fully implement the Anti-Corruption Law and create strong, independent institutions that could investigate corruption.
The Anti-Corruption Law “is potentially a step in the right direction but whether or not it actually is will depend very much on the quality of the law itself—and on effective implementation,” Grant said, adding that Burma’s Parliament also needs to ratify the UN Convention Against Corruption. She warned that many Southeast Asian have good anti-corruption laws in place that are never fully implemented.
Burma has long been plagued by public sector corruption on all levels, ranging from citizens paying for basic services to massive losses of revenues generated from the exploitation of Burma’s vast natural resources, such as timber, gemstones, oil, coal and gas.
Under the military regime, these revenues were siphoned off by the country’s military, political elite and their cronies, leaving the government unable to provide services and build infrastructure for its impoverished population.
“The exploitation of Burma’s natural resources has been heavily impacted upon by corruption,” said Sean Turnell, an economics professor at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. “The bounty these should provide has been hitherto denied to the people of Burma.”
Turnell said, however, that the government’s attitude towards corruption has begun to change.
“I think the current government recognizes the damage that corruption can impose upon their efforts to turn Burma’s economy around,” he said, adding that corruption posed a major stumbling block for Western investors, such oil companies, which are bound by strict anti-corruption rules in their home countries.
According to Turnell, Burma should battle corruption by lifting the numerous restrictions on economic activities that have long been in place as these provide officials with opportunities to demand bribes. “[A]dopt a policy as ‘liberal’ as possible, and remove the means by which corruption can be extracted,” he advised.
The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), an influential Washington-based think-tank, visited Burma in August and said it observed a sea change in attitudes towards in corruption in the country.
“Business executives say that President Thein Sein seems to have decided not to punish former cronies/proxies, but these corrupt businessmen appear to have lost most of their former privileges as the president has moved to level the playing field […] Ministers feel they cannot have any dealings with cronies out of fear they could face charges of corruption,” a CSIS report said.