Canada’s government says it is not responsible for a decision by the Burmese government to include controversial Burmese tycoon Steven Law in a high-level Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) trade mission to Vancouver and Toronto earlier this month.
As The Irrawaddy first reported last week, Law accompanied Burma’s minister for national planning and economic development, Kan Zaw, and three other businessmen as part of the Burmese delegation.
Law, who continues to be blacklisted by US authorities due to what the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) claims is his long-standing involvement in the drug trade, was in Canada June 1-5 for the Asean Economic Ministers Roadshow.
A spokesperson for International Trade Minister Ed Fast, Shannon Gutoskie, responded to questions regarding Law’s appearance in Canada by emphasizing that he was in the country because the Burmese government had invited him.
“The individual in question was part of the Government of Burma’s private sector delegation to accompany the Burmese Minister,” Gutoskie told The Irrawaddy via email. “The Government of Canada had no role in the selection of the private sector delegates.”
Gutoskie suggested that ultimately Canadian immigration officials bear responsibility for allowing Law onto Canadian soil. “The fact that this individual entered Canada concerns us. Clearly, Canadian immigration officials failed to do their job properly screening this individual under our immigration laws,” he said.
Law participated in the delegation under his Chinese name, Lo Ping Zhong, and was listed as the managing director of a previously unheard of firm, Yadanar Taung Tann Gems Co., Ltd., rather than his better known role as head of Asia World, a Burmese conglomerate that is involved in everything from hydroelectric power to grocery stores and hotels. Law is also known by his Burmese name, Tun Myint Naing.
Mark Farmaner, director of the Burma Campaign UK, a London-based advocacy group that continues to be one of the Thein Sein’s government’s harshest critics, said he found it inconceivable that Canadian diplomats based at the newly opened embassy in Rangoon didn’t recognize the controversial tycoon in the delegation even if he was going under a less well-known name.
“It is hard to believe that Canadian officials did not know who Steven Law is. He is notorious and was on visa ban lists in many countries. If officials decided to let him in rather than risk offending the Burmese government and damaging business opportunities, then this is a real disgrace,” Farmaner told The Irrawaddy.
“Inviting Stephen Law to take part in an official trade delegation exposes the continuing close relationship between Burma’s drug lords and the government of Burma,” Farmaner added.
According to leaked US diplomatic cables, these ties really blossomed after Law’s late father Lo Hsing Han played a key role in brokering a ceasefire agreement for the military regime, for which he received a concession for heroin production.
Despite the fact that Canadian authorities are unlikely to let Steven Law return to their country anytime soon, there appear to be no Canadian rules in effect that would prevent Canadian firms or Canadian individuals from doing business with Law or his Asia World conglomerate. This is because Law remains conspicuously absent from a list of 38 designated individuals affiliated with the previous regime that the Canadian government continues to target after it lifted its comprehensive sanctions policy in early 2012. Tay Za, Burma’s other most famous tycoon, is on the list along with such notables as former strongman Than Shwe.
Although Canadian businessmen who met with Law at the various Asean roadshow-related events, including a business roundtable breakfast in Toronto, would not be violating any Canadian rules if they did business with Law or received funds from Asia World, they could run into to trouble with US authorities, who continue to target Law.
According to sources in Rangoon, Asia World recently acquired the services of a Western public relations firm in order to improve his poor reputation. Whether Law and well-paid image-laundering experts are able to have him removed from the OFAC list remains to be seen.
Tom Malinowski, the US assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, told the Wall Street Journal during a visit to Burma last week that individuals and firms seeking to get off the list “have to demonstrate to [the US] that they are engaging in responsible business practices.”
This may prove difficult for Asia World, as the firm’s ongoing involvement in the Kunlong dam project in northern Shan state on the upper Salween River has, according to human rights activists, displaced large numbers of people and led to armed clashes in the area.
Law’s Meeting with BC Minister ‘Possible’
After The Irrawaddy broke the story of Law’s visit to Canada, the Vancouver-based newspaper The Province reported last Thursday that Teresa Wat, the international trade minister for the province of British Columbia, attended a luncheon that was also attended by Law. According to Province columnist Michael Smyth, “Although Law did not sit at the same table with Wat, a government official said it was possible she briefly met him at the event.”
The BC government’s statement to The Province also indicated that Premier Christy Clark did not meet with Steven Law—a claim that appears to contradict what the BC Ministry of International Trade’s press department told The Irrawaddy earlier in response to written questions about which Burmese business representatives met with Clark and Wat. The ministry’s communications office has yet to respond to The Irrawaddy’s follow-up questions regarding Law’s time in the province.
As The Irrawaddy previously reported, during his stay in Vancouver, Law attended a meeting between Canadian International Trade Minister Ed Fast and the Burmese delegation where trade between the two nations was discussed. According to an article published in April of this year by Burma’s ambassador to Canada, Hau Do Suan, 16 Canadian firms have invested US$46.07 million in Burma since sanctions were listed in 2012. It remains unclear, however, if any of this investment was made in cooperation with Law or Asia World.