RANGOON — On Friday, the United States Treasury announced it had blacklisted Aung Thaung, a powerful ruling party member, for undermining political reforms and “perpetuating violence.”
Political commentators and Burma experts said they believe he was put on a US sanctions list on suspicions of supporting the anti-Muslim violence that has rocked Burma in recent years, but they note that the move is mostly meant as a symbolic warning to the government not to slow down the reforms.
Aung Thaung, a Lower House member for the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), was a general and minister of industry in the former junta. He is seen as a hardliner and he and his sons have used their close connections to former dictator Snr-Gen Than Shwe to expand their businesses and amass wealth.
Bertil Lintner, a veteran journalist and Burma expert, said Washington appeared concerned about Aung Thaung’s possible links with the 969 movement, a group of nationalist Buddhist monks that is accused of spreading hate speech against Burma’s Muslim minority.
“The US seems to believe that he is behind 969. And that the activities of 969 hamper the so-called reform process,” Lintner said, before adding that “it’s hard to say” whether Aung Thaung is really involved in hindering the reforms.
Yan Myo Thein, an independent political commentator, said he believed that the US government would have strong indications of Aung Thaung’s involvement with the movement before sanctioning him. “I’ve no doubt that the US government will have done a detailed investigation about him before they announced the decision, but I wonder why they announced it shortly before Obama’s trip to Myanmar,” he said.
Civil society groups and analysts have said the violence being fanned by movements such as 969 is being used to destabilize Burma’s political transition and ratchet up nationalism ahead of the 2015 elections. During the junta-era, outbreaks of anti-Muslim violence were recurrently used to distract Burma’s predominantly Buddhist public.
Aung Thaung was seen as a leader of the junta’s political mass movement, the Union Solidarity and Development Association, and was linked to groups of thugs that carried out attacks on the opposition, including an attack on Aung San Suu Kyi’s campaign convoy in 2003 that killed dozens of her followers.
Last year, Aung Thaung was seen visiting the monastery of U Wirathu near Mandalay, and one news report suggested that a new Buddhist militia, the Taung Tha, was set up and named after the MP’s home town in Mandalay Division.
In June 2013, in an interview with The Irrawaddy Aung Thaung denied any involvement with the 969 movement and played down the significance of his visit to the monastery of U Wirathu, the public face of the movement. He also said he supported President Thein Sein’s reform agenda.
Aung Thaung could not be reached for comment on Monday.
U Wirathu said he did not know whether Aung Thaung was involved in orchestrating the anti-Muslim violence. “What he has told me in Mandalay is that he was worried that he was being accused by people of being involved behind the scenes,” said the monk, who himself has denied fanning the violence.
US Listing Impact on Reforms?
It is the second time since Thein Sein’s reformist government took office in 2011 that the US has blacklisted a senior government official. Lt-Gen Thein Htay, who heads the military’s Directorate of Defense Industries, was put on a US Treasury sanctions list early last year for illicit trade in North Korean arms to Burma.
Friday’s announcement comes ahead of President Obama’s visit to Burma on Nov. 12-13 for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and East Asia summits, which Burma is hosting this year.
In recent months, the Obama administration has come under growing criticism from Congress to ensure that Burma’s reform process does not stall after Suu Kyi’s constitutional reform attempts were blocked by the government and the USDP, while concerns also abound over the treatment of the stateless Rohingya and the Kachin conflict.
The US government’s decision, which specifically stated that it was targeting Aung Thaung as an individual and “does not designate a government entity,” appears to offer a warning to Naypyidaw not to slowdown the reform process while at the same appeasing US critics of Obama’s policy on Burma, said Kyaw Lin Oo, executive director of People’s Forum Working Group.
“Aung Thaung is known as one of the hardliners in the government as well as in Parliament, but there are many others like him. That’s why I think … he’s being used as a tool in a political game in the US,” he said.
“But I don’t think there will be a big impact on the government, because former lieutenant-general Thein Htay was also sanctioned by the US government and that has had no impact on the government,” Kyaw Lin Oo said.
Lintner said the blacklisting would probably not damage relations between the Obama administration and the Thein Sein government as the decision was “mostly symbolic.”
Tom Malinowski, US Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, told The Irrawaddy that the latest blacklisting served to keep Burma’s reform process on track.
“[W]e will do everything in our power to help those inside and outside the Burmese government who are trying to build [the reform process],” he said. “But we are also perfectly aware that there are powerful interests pushing in the opposite direction, and as we’ve always said, we will counter them when necessary.”
Hla Swe, an Upper House MP with the USDP, accused Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) of asking the White House to blacklist Aung Thaung in order to taint the USDP, a party filled mostly with former junta members.
“I see the blacklisting as a blow to the USDP by the US, which has always had a good relationship with the NLD. I condemn the US action against U Aung Thaung. I have to add this is a dirty action by the US,” he told The Irrawaddy.
NLD Lower House member Win Htein said in a reaction that he did not understand the decision by the US Treasury, adding that he believed that Aung Thaung had been supporting the reform process.
“As far as I can tell from speaking with him in Parliament he seems to be softening his stance. As long as he is a politician, he can meet with all sorts of organizations, including the 969 movement,” he said. “Aung San Suu Kyi is now doing national reconciliation, why do they [list him] at this moment?”