Customs at Customs

Taipei's Taoyuan International Airport

Taoyuan International Airport, Taipei offers a far different experience from Mingaladon International Airport, Yangon.

Those who live or have been to Burma may relate to my experience at Yangon’s airport. As many know, Mingaladon International Airport is not the most advanced airport, a major drift from Taipei’s Taoyuan International Aiport. Bribery and corruption are rampant in the airport and those particularly targeted are Burmese.

In 2006, the Burmese government launched an anti-corruption drive to weed out civil servants who were acting inappropriately on the job. Yangon’s international airport offers third-world services and third-world behavior from its workers, without a doubt. I, along with my family, last went to Burma in December 2005, and as an American citizen, I did not expect many problems (except my passport shows my Burmese name). We had agreed to speak only English, knowing that customs officials usually target Burmese speakers to earn “extra money” (laphet yay bo, literally “pocket money for tea” or a bribe).

Two government porters at the airport began to unload the luggages, and we headed toward the customs table, hoping not to leak out any Burmese words. The customs official, a middle-aged woman, began rummaging through our baggage. (Burmese customs officials usually hold items “hostage”, something as simple as multivitamins, and refuse to give it back until they are paid bribes.) She began presenting problems, telling us some trivial items were not allowed, even though we knew better. The porters, believing we were foreigners, gave hand signals and told the customs official in Burmese to stop hassling us. Luckily, we weren’t caught in a predicament where we would have to pay.

The government has since attempted to end corruption, particularly in the Customs Department. The Associated Press reports

Myanmar released about 370 of its customs officials Friday, after they were detained last year as part of the ruling military junta’s anti-corruption campaign, a detainee’s relative said.

It seems that short-term imprisonment has been used as the tactic of choice to deal with corrupt officials. But that is unlikely to work in the long run–even wealthier countries face this problem. Corruption has been prevalent in Burmese society for a long time, burgeoning during the Ne Win era. It is almost now embedded in Burmese culture, a daily experience.

But the general feelings of creepiness and apprehension at the airport have not changed. The customs officials now do not take bribes directly. Bribes are given instead to bystanders (workers like the police who are supposed to “oversee” the customs officials), and then transferred with customs officials. The system for giving money has changed, but corruption has not ended, at least at the airport. But I cannot blame them–the money the government workers make is not enough, and supplemental money is needed. It’s difficult to earn a livable salary in Burma. Economic restriction will only force more and more Burmese to seek alternate ways of generating income, and bribery is certainly feasible.

2 thoughts on “Customs at Customs

  1. mayvelous says:

    You were lucky they treated you as foreigner and didn’t bug you. As for us, just to go out of airport would take hours. At least 1hr at custom, atleast 2hrs at baggage collection, 1more hr for fighting back our own bags from those yepping around so-called “helpers/baggage handlers”.
    If you don’t give them “lafatyay foe” they will never leave you and I might as well sleep at the airport. And even when you give them some, you got to give to the right person or they will say, those that you give are different ppl and nth to do with them. Gosh I’m so disgusted by the airport custom and ppl there.

    Pheeew! A great feeling to go bck home but to cross the custom is just like living hell.


  2. Aung Kyaw says:

    That’s horrible. My aunt and uncle, who went on the same plane as us, used Burmese, and took much longer going through the grudging process than us. It’s annoying how porters want tips so desperately and take your bags without your asking them to do so. And outside the airport, hordes of men are waiting to take your bags in all directions.

    The system needs a major change. I think the airport opened a new terminal, though. I wonder if it uses that same procedure.

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