Myanmar mulls civil service pay hike to combat graft

NAYPYIDAW - A top Myanmar official on Tuesday proposed a rise in civil service wages to combat widespread graft in a move likely to prove popular as the country heads towards landmark by-elections.

Lower House speaker Shwe Mann, a former junta number three who is considered one of the country's most influential reformers, said pay for government workers was not enough to cover "basic daily expenses".

He said the raise, which will be debated by parliament, should come into effect on April 1, the same day that the country holds by-elections that will be contested by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi for the first time.

"We must give a high enough salary to school teachers, the police, soldiers and government staff," he told MPs, adding that otherwise staff would supplement shortfalls in their income in ways that would damage their "character".

Shwe Mann wants workers living standards brought into line with those enjoyed by government staff around half a century ago, before a wave of disastrous policies by the ruling junta that left the economy in tatters.

Myanmar's civil servants are paid low wages compared to other professions and many turn to asking for "tea money", or small bribes, to survive.

It is not yet clear how many people will see their pay rise as details of who would be affected are yet to be discussed.

The by-elections are seen as a major test of the reform agenda of the new army-backed government that replaced outright military rule last year.

Suu Kyi's party will contest all 48 seats available.

The democracy icon was on a one-day campaign trip on Tuesday in Pathein, in the Irrawaddy delta region, having attracted crowds of tens of thousands of supporters on a recent trip to southern Myanmar.

Despite the likelihood of Suu Kyi being swept into parliament by the vote, the number of seats up for grabs is not enough to challenge the dominance of the ruling party.

A quarter of parliament's seats are now taken up by unelected military officials while the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which is packed with former soldiers, holds about 80 per cent of the remainder.

Western nations are now considering easing sanctions, further raising hopes of an end to decades of isolation, but controversy surrounding the 2010 vote means the upcoming by-elections will be heavily scrutinised.