Business as Usual

In Burma, bribery, graft, and kickbacks are deeply ingrained.
2010-02-09
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A barge with teak logs from northeastern Myanmar makes its way down the Irrawaddy River. The logs are mostly for export. Profits go to the government.
RFA/Tyler Chapman

By Tyler Chapman

RANGOON—Corruption awaits as soon as you arrive in Burma. 

Passengers into Rangoon International Airport are screened for feverish symptoms of the H1N1 flu virus in the open as their bags are x-rayed in private.

The owners of bags deemed to require further inspection are pulled aside and asked to open them. It soon becomes clear that the customs inspector expects “a present” to release the bag, unless some egregious smuggling is involved. 

A few dollars, preferably a crisp U.S. $20 bill, will do just fine.

But what happens at the airport is merely the tip of the corruption iceberg.

The watchdog group Transparency International ranks Burma the third most corrupt country in the world, behind Somalia and Afghanistan.

It starts at the top, among the generals ruling the country, and permeates virtually every level of society, from the officer corps to charity organizations working here.

Kickbacks common


For ordinary Burmese, the sight of barges loaded with teak logs making their way down the Irrawaddy River symbolizes corruption at the highest levels.

For years, they say, the generals have taken huge kickbacks to let their cronies and foreign companies strip clean the vast teak forests of northeast Burma.

A friend who lives near the river is seeing fewer and fewer barges these days.

“We’re running out of teak,” he said.

Other natural resources are for sale as well.

A Western oil executive told me China, India, Thailand and South Korea are more than willing to pay bribes for access to Burma’s untapped natural gas reserves.

On Burma’s western shore, a consortium of companies has begun to develop a gas field whose riches will be piped to India and China.

The companies have donated a medical clinic to a nearby village with their names on it. Daewoo of South Korea, a company with a history of bribery scandals, is at the top of the list.

In fact, the former president of Daewoo, Lee Tae-yong, was convicted in 2007 of illegally sending military equipment to Burma in exchange for the rights to develop Burma’s gas fields. 

A South Korean court fined him U.S. $50,000 and gave him a one-year suspended sentence.

Western experts estimate that the gas fields in western Burma will earn the military government at least U.S. $1.5 billion a year.

Vast disparities

If past is prologue, little of that money will be used to benefit struggling Burmese.

This is a country where a woman I know worked seven days a week, 14 hours a day at a government seafood packing plant for 70 cents a day. She did this for seven years, until her husband persuaded her to quit last year.

The generals set the tone for what happens within Burma’s 400,000-strong army, where corruption is said to run strong. The mother of an army officer told me that promotion within the officer ranks is often for sale—pay your superiors to move up in rank.

Tyler Chapman is a pseudonym to protect the author's sources. This is his second visit to Burma for Radio Free Asia.
“The higher an officer’s rank,” she said, “the more he can make from bribes and kickbacks.”

The neighborhoods where retired generals and government ministers live in Rangoon are filled with colonnaded mansions surrounded by walls topped with coils of razor wire.

On the streets, the traffic police are renowned for demanding payoffs. On the way to one of the country’s smaller airports, my taxi was flagged down by a white-unformed traffic policeman on foot.

The driver was instructed to go to a tea shop across the street and leave a deposit there so the officer wouldn’t be seen taking money directly. The driver told me this happens all the time.

Schools, hospitals corrupt  too

Even the nation’s schools are tainted by corruption.

A woman who wanted to get her teenage daughter into one of Rangoon’s better high schools said the headmaster demanded U.S. $300 to admit her. That’s just short of the average annual income in Burma.

“Besides that,” the mother said, “there would be extra fees for books, maintenance, whatever. We couldn’t do it.”

Government teachers earn U.S. $20-30 every month.  After school, they often offer tutoring for an additional fee. They say they do it to supplement their income.

Some parents see it as just another symptom of system-wide corruption.

Stories of payoffs in health care abound as well—bribes to get into hospitals, bribes for tests, bribes for medicine.

Charity hospitals that treat monks, nuns, and the indigent are untainted, but they are poorly staffed and ill equipped.

Doctors trained at the government medical school earn a starting salary of U.S. $80 per month at the country’s hospitals, if they get a job at all. Payment is often required to get on the hiring list.

Jobs are for sale, too, among nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

Friends in western Burma told me the Burmese coordinators for several NGOs are taking bribes from applicants for lucrative positions.

“Unfortunately,” a friend said, “this corruption has become a way of life. You have to learn to live with it.”


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