While the government is keen to tackle endemic corruption on paper, lifting its people out of poverty could be the quickest way to clean up the country
By Kim Jolliffe
“Bribery and chaos,” a goliath of a man boomed. “That is what makes the Burmese police force different from those in other countries.”
In a small safe house in Mae Sot, on the Thai-Myanmar border, Zaw Bowm talked of his five years in the Myanmar police and five years in its special branch, a position he deserted in 2009.
The “main job” his department was charged with was “watching the [National League of Democracy], the other opposition groups and their families”.
“The police in Myanmar never worked for the people,” the former second lieutenant said. “It was all for the military government, and when we had time, for our own desire, for our survival.”
It is no secret that endemic graft has gripped Myanmar for decades. Military commanders oiling their greasy hands in severely underfunded institutions such as the courts and the police force have bound the rule of law more to the whims of their senior-in-command than to any form of justice.
“On paper, the system would have us work for 15 years to become lieutenant,” Zaw Bowm said. “But the government would just place a military captain or major in that position. They didn’t trust the police force, they just wanted to use it for themselves.”
“Corruption is the cancer of the society,” said U Min ‘Michael’ Sein, arguably the country’s most senior lawyer. “It comes in many forms and the faster its eradication, the more the country will prosper.”
In recent years, law enforcers have treated the country’s legal system – generally revolving around a handful of legal codes from the British colonial era with numerous laws tacked on to suit the aims of successive military regimes – more as a guideline than any kind of doctrine.
“The police are taught all the legal codes and they usually understand them, but they do not prioritise respecting the law – they generally only look out for themselves, only for their survival, their income and their wealth,” said Zaw Bowm, adding that underpaid police take bribes in many forms, with their loyalty up for sale to the highest bidder. “If the victim is important or rich, they will do the work; if he is not important, they just ignore it.”
Similar practices pervade the courts, according to Zaw Bowm. “We were all like friends,” he said. “We take bribes, they take bribes; there was no tension.” In a land governed by impunity, senior military leaders can overturn a court ruling and certain crimes, such as rape, are cash cows for police officers, whose three-step system involves “work, then negotiation, then bribery”.
“If we solved a crime, we would send a middle man to collect money ‘for petrol’ or something like that after,” Zaw Bowm said, explaining that such funds could boost a meagre government salary ten-fold. If a daily operation cost $3 or $4, the police would often request up to $30 to make it worth their time.
It is hardly surprising then that Myanmar shared second-to-last place with Afghanistan in Transparency International’s 2011 Corruption Perception Index.
Though things may be about to change, according to U Min Sein. As Myanmar finds itself in the throes of change, he believes the drafting of a new anti-corruption law is inspiring optimism and, if successful, “a system that will guarantee full human rights and good governance” will emerge.
“The [new] motto is ‘no one is above the law’,” said U Min Sein, who believes the courts are becoming more independent.
“The chief justice has stressed at every meeting with the judges that the judiciary must be independent and pass judgments and orders according to the law.”
There are signs that President Thein Sein recognises the importance of reining in corruption to improve Myanmar’s international image, create financial growth and regain the trust of the people, especially in rural areas where authorities have long oppressed communities.
He told parliament earlier this year: “With the system change, corruption and bribery will die down. Thus, we are taking time to restructure our administrative mechanism.”
However, while such apparent commitment to institutional reform is a positive step, until the law has been passed, corruption will continue to be seen as a risk to international corporations.
Few will be privy to the particulars of the law, as the constitution demands no laws are made public during the drafting process. Both Zaw Bowm and U Min Sein said the genuine eradication of corruption would involve far more than systemic alterations.
“[Even if new laws are made], the people need full employment and salaries, both servicemen and the civilians, because this will encourage them to obey the law,” Zaw Bowm said. “If there is no economic change, and then new laws are enforced, they will just have to put everyone in jail.”
While economic reform lies at the heart of grappling graft, U Min Sein also believes that lasting change relies on mass re-education and protecting a clean judiciary.
“What is really needed is the education of judges and the other legal professionals in international commercial laws and practices. Judicial officers should have guaranteed [state] protection for them to be able to administer justice according to the law.”
Perhaps during the wave of reform currently occupying parliament, this three-step system of a clean judiciary, economic reform and re-education will replace that previously employed by police – work, negotiation and bribery – finally curing the country of its cancerous corruption.