Curbing Asia’s Corrupt Governments

Representatives of civil society organizations from nine ASEAN nations have been meeting for the past two days in Bangkok, seeking ways to fast-track implementation of the United Nations Convention Against Corruption in what has to seem like an uphill struggle.

All nine countries have completed the first cycle of the convention against corruption implementation review, covering criminalization and law enforcement and international cooperation, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, which is hosting the event. Indonesia and Malaysia have completed the second cycle and Thailand, Vietnam and Laos are at work doing the same.

Unfortunately, the CSOs as the organizations are known are fighting against deeply entrenched corruption. The countries sending reformers to Bangkok are Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Timor-Leste and Vietnam. Except for Singapore, which has its own problems with authoritarian ism, the record might make observers into skeptics.

Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perceptions Index for 2017 finds little encouragement. “…Our analysis reveals little progress across the region,” according to the report. “In the past six years, only a few countries experienced small, incremental changes indicating signs of improvement.”

Unfortunately, according to Transparency International, “the 2017 index also shows that corruption in many countries is still strong. Often, when individuals dare to challenge the status quo, they suffer the consequences. In some countries across the region, journalists, activists, opposition leaders and even staff of law enforcement or watchdog agencies are threatened, and in the worst cases, even murdered.”

The Philippines is among the worse regional offenders, the report says.

“While freedom of expression is under attack across much of the region, civic space is also shrinking severely. Civil society organizations in countries like Cambodia, Papua New Guinea and China are permanently under threat from authorities. In Cambodia, the government recently cracked down on civil society with the introduction of a restrictive law against NGOs. Cambodia is one of the worst-ranked countries in the region according to the CPI.”

Singapore is the highest-ranked East Asian country in the TI index, at 6th despite its propensity towards authoritarian government. (New Zealand and the Nordic countries rank highest as usual.)

From there, it is a long drop, to 62nd place and Malaysia, which is coming off the biggest scandal in the country’s history, with the loss of untold billions of dollars in the 1Malaysia Development fiasco and the arrest of its prime minister, Najib Razak, and his wife, Rosmah Mansor. Malaysa’s Pakatan Harapan coalition, which took power in May, is now trying to deal with the vestiges of 60 years of cronyism and rent-seeking.

The 1MDB matter has become a veritable textbook case of global money laundering, with US authorities pursuing missing assets across the globe and the current prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, trying to reclaim vast sums for his country.

The net drop is another 29 places to Timor-Lest, ranked 91st. Indonesia and Thailand are tied at 96th, which seems optimistic, since both of them hopelessly corrupt. Vietnam is ranked 107th, followed by the Philippines at 111th. Myanmar is at 130th, followed by Papua New Guinea and Laos, tied at 135th. Cambodia brings up the rear for the region at 161st of 180 countries.

The gloomy part about those rankings is that not a single country has moved up significantly from rankings in 2012, five years ago.

Thus it is jarring that the representatives of 27 civil society organizations are gathered in Bangkok, “working to support government accountability and transparency in various sectors, such as transparency of the judiciary, access to information, whistle-blowing systems, open data, innovative tools, wildlife and timber trafficking, access to justice, women’s rights or business integrity.”

The event, according to the UN office, “is an opportunity to equip CSOs to be ready to review the ongoing UNCAC Implementation Review Mechanisms in ASEAN countries, support their work on anti-corruption in Southeast-Asia, hold thematic sessions of particular interest to civil society, and mark the International Anti-Corruption Day 2018,” said Mirella Dummar-Frahi, UNODC Civil Society Team. In addition, the discussions of the roundtable aim to inform future activities for civil society work in the region.

According to the World Economic Forum, as part of the ‘Global Competitiveness Report,’ most countries in Asia are ranking in the bottom-half with regards to corruption, according to Julien Garsany, deputy regional representative for the UNODC Regional Office for Southeast-Asia and the Pacific.

This year, Garsany said, “we celebrate the 15th anniversary of the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC), this is the occasion to measure progress in its implementation at the national level, and a lot remains to be done. In the ASEAN region, the only existing regional framework is the UNCAC, which makes it of critical importance to tackle corruption at both national and regional levels.”

Critical areas identified as regional trends in the preliminary findings include conflict of interests, asset declaration systems, public procurement, revolving doors, access to information and beneficial ownership.

“CSOs have an important role to play through investigative journalism, sharing of information, transparency and accountability initiatives,” he said, noting progress made towards the inclusion of liability of legal persons in domestic laws in ASEAN countries, which is a positive trend, and the role civil society can play: “If the civil society pushes civil action against companies known to bribe, that could be very powerful.”