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Burma’s new National League for Democracy (NLD) government has a huge set of reform challenges waiting for it, but few could be more important and intractable than corruption.
During decades of military rule graft became ubiquitous. To the anger of ordinary citizens, bribes were required for the simplest government services, while it became the norm in doing business and obtaining licenses in the country. During the former Thein Sein government, there was little change in this situation.
Fighting corruption is a defining principle of the NLD, along with democratic practices. Aung San Suu Kyi, as Minister of the President’s Office, recently banned civil servants from accepting gifts worth more than 25,000 kyats ($23), while a leading MP has said that clean government is the ‘life blood’ of the party.
But rooting out bribery will be easier said than done; a recent experience reminded me just how deeply entrenched the problem is among the underpaid civil service.
Last month, I went to the immigration office in Rangoon’s North Okkalapa Township, where I grew up, to obtain a simple document stating I no longer reside there. I had moved to the city’s centre and needed this document to register in my new neighbourhood.
Posters inside said the document would be made available free of charge within a single day if the applicant had the necessary papers.
I approached a middle-aged women in charge of serving customers and handed her my documents and application. As she sat behind a desk filled with stacks of disintegrating notebooks, she looked through my papers, going through them several times.
She then looked at me with clear dismay, which signalled – I knew from experience – that I had broken the unspoken rule and failed to include ‘tea money,’ a euphemism for a small bribe paid in exchange for services. She took out a thick registry book with tattered corners and threw it before me, muttering, “Search for your name in here.”
I protested, upon which she said with a frown, “Come back the day after tomorrow.” I was familiar with the routine: a lack of tea money would see the government workers put one’s request through an oblique and torturous waiting process that could take hours, if not days.
I remember in 1995, I paid 200 kyats to get my first national registration card and in 2012, I reluctantly paid 20,000 kyat to renew it. Growing up, I saw at state-owned hospitals how you bribed the doctors and nurses for medical attention; as a student you bribed teachers for admission to school of your choice, if you end up in court you could bribe police and judges to get out of a case.
In 2015, Transparency International ranked Burma 147 out of 168 countries assessed for graft, on par with the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Chad.
However, since Burma is now under a new government, said to oppose graft, I decided I would not play along this time, reminding myself that ending corruption also involves action by the public.
I confronted the immigration official and asked whether she refused to serve me as I failed to pay tea money. She recoiled and said the official in charge of giving approvals was not available that day. Behind her, another official scoffed at my demand, saying, “Why don’t you find people who can work here for a small salary like ours?”
Most lowest-tier civil servants indeed work for a pittance, earning between $100 and $200 per month, far below what’s needed to support a family these days. I felt bad for withholding their additional income, but also think we have a collective responsibility to resist corruption in all forms.
I decided I would face the consequences, and a possible waste of my time, and would not pay the bribe. I told staff I would come back the next day and file an official complaint with the Ministry of Labor and Immigration if my application was still being denied.
As I left, I received a surprise applause from three elderly ladies who were waiting on a wooden bench in the hot office building for their applications. “Terrific!” one said with a smile.
I didn’t feel particularly heroic though; in my mind I had always imagined the fight against corruption to target those businessmen and top officials raking in ill-gotten gains from the country’s rich resources such as jade, timber and oil and gas. But here I was, arguing with poorly paid civil servants.
When I returned the next day, bracing myself for further intransigence, I was in for a surprise. I was handed my documents right away and without hassle. Perhaps, I thought, there is now among the public and civil service a heightened awareness of how unacceptable graft is to the new government and that it demands a truly clean civil service.
But let’s hope that more can be done too to raise income among many civil servants, so they can more easily abandon their old habits. And let’s also make sure the new government’s fight against corruption targets those top officials, military officers and businessmen who became corrupted and fabulously wealthy in past decades while the country slid into poverty.
This article was originally published by Myanmar Now on 27 May 2016.