During the work week, Myanmar’s members of parliament spend their evenings housed in bland dormitories in Naypyitaw. So for many MPs, Friday night is travel night.
Some board buses for long, bumpy journeys to their hometowns in far flung corners of the country. Others take shorter trips to closer cities like Mandalay or Yangon for some weekend respite from the capital city.
It was on one of these overnight trips in August last year, speeding along the poorly-lit highway from Naypyitaw to Yangon, that a chance encounter led one MP to a discovery that would help crack open the highest-level corruption case since the NLD came to power in 2016.
Dr Than Htut, the former director general of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), was removed from his post after being arrested in April under section 56 of the anti-corruption law, which carries a maximum prison sentence of 10 years.
The Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) has accused the former director general of demanding favours from a construction company in exchange for building contracts.
The commission alleged the director general had the company carry out more than K150 million (roughly $100,000) worth of private construction work that included building him a swimming pool and kitting his houses out with electronic goods.
Dr Than Htut has said on several occasions that he has been wrongly accused.
President U Win Myint took office in March promising to make tackling corruption a key feature of his tenure. But this case may never have come to light were it not for one crusading MP.
Dr Khun Win Thaung, a 62-year-old former veterinarian who was elected to Kachin State’s eleventh constituency on an NLD ticket in 2016, was on his way to see friends in Yangon last August when he struck up a conversation with the man in the seat next to him.
The MP loved to talk corruption and human rights, and his fellow passenger was an employee at a construction company that had been working on government contracts.
Swimming pools and TVs
This, it turned out, would make for interesting conversation as travellers around them dozed beneath their blankets.
The passenger, Nay Myo Aung, lived in Yangon and worked for the Cairo Construction Company, which he said had secured a contract to build laboratories and other buildings for the FDA, which operates under the Ministry of Health.
This reminded Dr Khun Win Thaung of a parliamentary discussion he had taken part in about the low quality of government hospital buildings.
He asked Nay Myo Aung if, now that the government had allocated more money to healthcare, the extra cash was really benefiting the people.
“What do you think?” he responded.
The employee went on to allege that his company had been skimming money off the budget for the FDA projects in order to build houses for the agency’s director general.
In one case, he said, Cairo built a house with a swimming pool in Ywar Thit, Naypyitaw, on nine acres of land owned by the director general.
They fitted this and other houses out with furniture, kitchenware, wide screen televisions and minibars, all with public money, the employee said.
The company also built a house in the Naypyitaw’s Shwe Kyar Pin ward for the director general, he said.
To find the money for all these houses, he said, the company had to cut corners building the FDA facilities.
‘Holes in the roof’
In January, four months after their conversation on the highway bus, Dr Khun Win Thaung and Nay Myo Aung met again in Naypyitaw for a discreet visit to one of these offices.
“He told me the zinc plates for the roof weren’t up to standard,” Dr Khun Win Thaung recalled. “They were very thin. The number of rain diverters installed was less than the number in the plan.”
The Cairo employee also told him that “there will be holes in the roof after two years, and they will ask for money from the government to do major repairs,” Dr Khun Win Thaung said.
The MP recorded the conversation and in February sent the file to the Anti-Corruption Commission, which has been criticised since its formation in 2014 for failing to target higher-ranking officials.
After receiving the MP’s complaint, the ACC questioned 18 people, including officials from Cairo and the FDA, and the whistleblowing employee.
“There are many cases worse than this” that haven’t yet been exposed, Dr Khun Win Thaung told Myanmar Now. “What I am trying to say is they are still stealing while the country is still recovering.”
Before the scandal broke, Dr Than Htut was seen as a rising star, and tipped for a top ministerial position, Dr Khun Win Thaung said.
“Top officials had considered making him deputy minister of health,” he said.
Dr Than Htut is the highest ranking official to be charged by the Anti-Corruption Commission, followed by ousted Yangon Region Advocate General U Han Htoo, who was charged in September for corruption relating to the murder case of comedian and actor Aung Ye Htwe.
Last month Dr Khun Win Thaung testified at Dr Than Htut’s trial at a courthouse in Mandalay.
Dr Than Htut was brought to the court from Mandalay’s O Bo prison in handcuffs. After the hearing he told a crowd of reporters that he was innocent.
On his way out of the court on the same day he said he was wrongly accused and will resolve the accusations in the courtroom.
The next hearing will take place on January 18th.