Corruption is part everyday life in Myanmar. While the wealthy can use bribery to get around the law, for the vast majority of Burmese citizens, bribery is necessary to get things done even when the law is on your side. The term “tea money” exists in common parlance to describe the small bribes necessary to obtain even the most basic of services—bribes that are so ubiquitous that many people don’t think they count as corruption. The imposition of unofficial, discretionary and discriminatory “fees” means that formally public services are in practice “privatized.”
One explanation for the persistence of this petty corruption is that both the national government and the regional governments lack the revenue necessary to provide the public services that, under Myanmar’s Constitution, the government is supposed to provide. According to the Asia Foundation, “Decades of deliberate neglect of Myanmar’s tax-administration system have left the country with one of the lowest tax takes in the world [….] Myanmar’s tax revenues in 2016–17 were only 6–7% of GDP. This compares to 10–20% of GDP for countries at similar levels of income.” The country does earn significant revenue from natural resources, but these rents have gone into the pockets of military elites; other revenue sources are severely limited. When the demand for government services and benefits outstrips the supply, people become willing to pay extra for the promised public goods. The idea that these extra fees are acceptable is exacerbated by the fact that Myanmar’s lower-ranking public servants earn very low official salaries. But allocating public services on the basis of bribe payments is not fair, equitable, transparent, or efficient.
In an ideal world, Myanmar would reform its tax system, collect adequate revenue, pay its public servants decent salaries, and be able to provide all of the goods and services to which its citizens are legally entitled. But while we can all hope Myanmar works toward that goal, nothing like that is going to happen anytime soon.
A more practical short-term solution is to raise the official administrative fees—or “user fees”—for public services. Continue reading