One of the most significant problems for economic development and poverty alleviation is corruption. Corruption refers to the situations when authorities misuse power for their own benefit.  An example of corruption is where people give bribes to government officials to obtain public services. In areas of widespread corruption, people are threatened to give bribes.


Southeast Asian countries are comprised of different political systems, different social economic patterns, and different levels of economic development.  As a result, the index of corruption is varied within the region. According to Transparency International’s corruption index for 2006, Singapore is one of the least corrupted countries with an index of 5 out of 163. Meanwhile, Burma is the second largest corrupt; its rank is 162 out 163.


One of the main reasons for corruption is that Burma is ruled by a military government. Unlike democratic governments, the military regime lacks accountability for their actions. As a result, they don’t have to take responsibility for their wrong doings, including corruption. Ironically, the military regime uses corruption as a political tool for their internal power struggle. It is claimed that all military generals in the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) have to take bribes. It goes that when a general ‘needs’ to be fired publicly for their internal power plays within the system, then the SPDC can give a reason to public and international audience that the general was fired because of corruption. It saves face.

Another reason for corruption in Burma is related to bureaucratic mechanisms, which are very complicated. There are many loop holes the general public cannot understand, and there is no transparency. If one complains about the complicated bureaucratic system, the government officials would say that they are acting under their superior’s orders. For official work to go smoothly, people need to give bribes to government officials, making corruption inevitable in government offices in Burma.


In Burma, government jobs are attractive, but very difficult to obtain.  If someone wants to get a job, he or she needs to give bribe to those who have power to assign this position. In return, when they are assigned as a government official, he or she needs to ask for bribes from the public to cover what they paid to get the job. It has become a vicious cycle, with corruption never ending in Burmese society. Furthermore, Burma has encountered economic recession for many years. The inflation rate is soaring while government servant real wages do not cover their living standard. Government officials are underpaid, and as a result, government officials are often forced to engage in corrupt activities to make ends meet.


Yet, bribery involves two parties – there are takers and there are givers.  Burmese people give bribes not only for government officials, but the general public is used to taking and giving bribes for government services. As a result, this practice has become habit for Burmese, part of their mindset. So, Burmese people are acquiescence with corruption, and they are not hesitant to give bribes. However, corruption is also related to Burmese political culture.  Burma has been ruled by a military regime since 1962, for over 40 years. Burmese people are not familiar with democratic practice and they do not know their civic rights.


The military regime tightly controls the Burmese mass media through censorship. There are two government-run newspapers and one privately-run newspaper that is under close scrutiny and censorship, so there is no check and balance for government officials’ corruption. Even if people have to pay bribes for government services, they do not have the right to express or protest the government officials’ injustice and corruption.  Furthermore, it appears that there is no clear legal system for corruption in Burma; it always depends on the military generals’ orders.  Generally, the military generals do not take action against corruption as long as it does not threaten their power.

Recently, however, the SPDC have made claims that they are trying to set up good governance, which has become a buzzword in development literature. Good governance is the basic need for economic development, poverty alleviation[1], and basic condition for international aid. One of the features of good governance is combating corruption.  As a result of the SPDC ‘good governance’ initiatives, the Burmese military regime arrested many officials Custom Department for corruption, and they were sentenced with long terms. The Burmese military regime also announced some phone numbers for those who have to pay bribe for government services to call and claim for it. Although the SPDC is trying to tackle the corruption, it fails to meet the criteria of good governances.  The criterion includes people participation in decision making process; rule of law that requires fair legal frameworks that are enforced impartially; transparency so that information is freely available and directly accessible to those who will be affected; and responsiveness.

So it can be seen that Burma is the most corrupted country in the South-East Asian region. There are multiple dimensions to corruption in Burma, including the Burmese political situation, economic recession, lack of press freedom, lack of good governance, military regime mismanagement, Burmese political culture and habit, and lack of democratic practices.

This article was written by Myint Zaw, a Burmese pro-democracy activist living in Thailand

[1] According to official figures, 25% of Burmese citizens are living below the extreme poverty line (ie are earning less than $US1.00 per day), although given the sketchiness of official figures, it is assumed that this figure is actually higher.

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