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The Theives of Burma

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Christian Caryl

The Thieves of Burma

Hello from the third-most corrupt place on Earth.

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RANGOON — This week I’m in Burma, where Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi is running for a seat in parliament. This is the first time she’s been allowed to participate in an election in 22 years. The last one, in 1990, brought a landslide victory to her National League for Democracy (NLD). But she wasn’t really in a position to enjoy it. As the results came in she was already under house arrest, and many of her colleagues had disappeared into prison.

If she makes it into parliament this time around, she will have little formal power to affect the passage of legislation. Even if the NLD wins all the seats up for grabs, its presence in parliament will still be dwarfed by that of the military, which has controlled the country’s political system for the past 50 years and is automatically assured a large bloc of seats in the assembly.


She should start with an issue that holds a prominent place in the lives of her compatriots: corruption. Burma is one of the most corrupt countries in the world, which is saying a lot. In the most recent Corruption Perceptions Index published by the watchdog group Transparency International, Burma’s rank was 180. The only countries that ranked worse were Somalia and North Korea.

This will not come as news to Aung San Suu Kyi’s voters. They encounter petty bribery on an everyday basis, but the culture of sleaze here goes way beyond that. For decades, Burma’s military leaders divided up this country’s astonishing national wealth among themselves, reducing the rest of their compatriots to poverty. On YouTube you can watch a leaked video of the wedding of the daughter of top general Than Shwe (pictured above, and covered in jewels). If you want to pay your respects to someone powerful in Burma, the best way to do so is by giving him or her a car as a present. Rumor has it that the gifts received by the happy couple in the video included 70 sets of car keys.

This is hardly a trivial problem. Burma desperately needs foreign direct investment to jumpstart economic growth and spur the influx of modern management and technological know-how, but investors are likely to shy away if the country can’t clean up its act. Why put money into a factory — or an English-language newspaper, for that matter — if some politically well-connected thug can come along at the right moment and scoop up your property? Especially when you know that you’ll have little chance of redress, since the legal system is also deeply permeated by sleaze.

So malfeasance is a big problem. But there’s another reason why Aung San Suu Kyi should make it a priority. Her real power to change things may be limited, but corruption is one area where a bit of sunlight can have a disproportionate effect. If she succeeds in winning a seat, one of the first things she should do upon entering parliament is to propose a public code of conduct for all government officials. She should push for transparency in the administration of all state-owned assets, including clear rules on procurement and the awarding of government contracts.

She should also declare her interest in setting up an anti-corruption commission modeled on the existing bodies in Hong Kong or Singapore. Both places are famous for giving their corruption-fighting ombudsmen broad powers to investigate and prosecute graft. As a matter of fact, Burma’s immediate neighborhood is rife with anti-corruption initiatives these days. Some of the most interesting come from India, where activists are bringing the power of the Internet to bear on petty bribery and official malfeasance. So there can be little talk of corruption-fighting as a quirk of alien Western culture. Nowadays, it would seem, many Asians are becoming obsessed with combating graft. What’s more, these efforts demonstrate that combating corruption is not predestined by culture or history. Culturally speaking, Hong Kong and Singapore, both former British colonies, should be just as corrupt as other former British colonies like India and Burma. The difference is that Hong Kong and Singapore found the political will to tackle the problem. Burma’s leaders can do the same.

Still, I doubt that the present government is likely to undertake serious measures in this direction any time soon; too many of its members remain compromised by their own dirty dealings. But if the government fails to respond to opposition demands for a true anti-corruption policy, voters will have little reason to reward it for doing so in the next general election three years from now. The powers-that-be reject the principle of clean government at their own risk.

What’s more, Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD should practice what they preach. She should announce a policy of zero tolerance among her own followers, including the full and transparent disclosure of assets. As the recent experience of the African National Congress so vividly illustrates, the popular freedom fighters of yesterday can easily morph into the sleazeballs of today once they achieve real power. Starting with the right policies now can help to stave off temptation in the future.

 Twitter: @ccaryl