After years as a staunch critic of Burma’s former military junta, Canada signaled a sea change in its priorities toward the country earlier this month when it welcomed a tycoon with deep ties to the drug trade, but denied entry to a human rights activist because she lacked financial resources.
Though unrelated, the two visits—one by all accounts a success, the other aborted before it even began—serve as a jarring reminder of Burma’s transformation from a country once regarded as one of the world’s most ruthlessly repressive states to a nation now seen as a prime destination for foreign investment.
No longer a pariah since its new, nominally civilian government started introducing reforms after taking power in 2011, Burma now sends trade delegations around the world to drum up interest in its undeveloped but resource-rich economy.
It was as part of one such trade mission that Steven Law, the head of Asia World, one of Burma’s largest conglomerates, paid a low-key visit in the first week of June to two of Canada’s largest cities—a visit that went completely undetected by the Canadian media, despite his well-documented ties to Burma’s former ruling regime and its thriving drug trade.
Law, who made the trip under his Chinese name, Lo Ping Zhong, was one of four businessmen traveling with Burma’s Minister of National Planning and Economic Development Kan Zaw during a four-day “Asean Economic Ministers Roadshow” organized by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and their Canadian hosts that began on June 2. Economic ministers from nine member states of the regional grouping took part in the visit, which included meetings with their Canadian counterpart and other senior federal and provincial officials.
It appears that Law went to some pains to avoid attracting attention during the trip, not only identifying himself by his little-known Chinese name (he also has several other aliases, including a Burmese name, Tun Myint Naing), but also giving his title as managing director of Yadanar Taung Tann Gems Co. Ltd, an entity that appears to be the latest in a long string of obscure Asia World subsidiaries.
This circumspection would seem to be well justified. Law and his late father, the notorious drug lord Lo Hsing Han, have been on the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctions list since early 2008.
A press release announcing the inclusion of the father and son on the OFAC list claimed that “In addition to their support for the Burmese regime, Steven Law and Lo Hsing Han have a history of involvement in illicit activities.”
The statement went on to describe Lo Hsing Han as the “Godfather of Heroin” and “one of the world’s key heroin traffickers dating back to the early 1970s.” It added that “Steven Law joined his father’s drug empire in the 1990s and has since become one of the wealthiest individuals in Burma.”
Keeping a Low Profile
If Law’s Canadian hosts were aware of his reputation south of the border, they did a good job of hiding it. In a photograph taken at a luncheon co-hosted by the Asia Pacific Foundation and the Canada-Asean Business Council at Toronto’s upscale Royal York Hotel on June 5, the final day of the visit, he appears relaxed, wearing a name tag identifying him as Lo Ping Zhong and showing no signs that he was at the center of a controversy over his right to be there.
That event, attended by Canadian Trade Minister Ed Fast and “around 100 of Canada’s leading entrepreneurs” (according to a press release issued by Indonesia’s Ministry of Trade), was just one of several encounters between Law and senior Canadian officials. A few days earlier, in Vancouver, he also attended a meeting between Fast and the Burmese delegation, and another with British Columbia’s premier, Christy Clark, and the province’s minister of international trade, Teresa Wat.
By meeting a delegation that included one of Burma’s most notorious businessmen, Fast appeared to be ignoring advice he gave to Canadian firms during his first visit to Burma nearly two years ago to assess the country’s economic and political reforms.
“They are undertaking comprehensive economic reforms here [but] many of those reforms have not been concluded. That’s why we strongly encourage Canadian companies to exercise great caution and ensure that if they enter this market, they have trusted partners that show the highest level of integrity,” he told a group of Canadian reporters during a press conference held in Naypyidaw in September 2012.
Nor was Law the only member of Kan Zaw’s entourage who should have raised eyebrows. Burma’s newly appointed honorary consul to Canada, former Toronto area MP Bryon Wilfert, confirmed that the Burmese minister was also joined by another businessman on the US sanctions list—Win Aung, head of Dagon International and chairman of Burma’s chamber of commerce, who was described in leaked diplomatic cable from 2007 as “one of several cronies who not only financially supports the [regime of dictator Snr-Gen Than Shwe], but also uses his contacts with the senior generals to amass and maintain his fortune.”
“Mr. Lo Ping Zhong was there, as were Aye Win, Zaw Min Win and Win Aung. All were present,” Wilfert told The Irrawaddy by phone when asked who accompanied Kan Zaw as part of the Burmese delegation. Like Win Aung, Aye Win and Zaw Min Win were representing the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry.
Not on the List
By embracing a trade delegation that included Steven Law, the Canadian government seems to be signaling a dramatic shift away from its past stance against Burma’s defunct military regime. Following a brutal crackdown on protesting monks in September 2007, the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper banned most forms of trade and investment in Burma by Canadian firms or individuals, in what it described as the world’s toughest sanctions against the country.
Despite these strict measures, however, both Steven Law and his father were conspicuously absent from the list of individuals targeted by Canadian sanctions, even though both men were on similar Australian, European and US lists. In April 2012—the same month that Canada lifted its comprehensive economic sanctions following similar moves by Australia and the EU—it updated its list of 38 individuals subject to restrictions for their affiliation with the former regime, but Law was still not among them.
This is surprising, because Asia World remains one of Burma’s most controversial companies. Founded in 1992, it has served primarily as a way for the Lo clan to launder its profits from a heroin “concession” granted by Khin Nyunt, then a powerful figure within the Burmese junta, through investment in a wide portfolio of legitimate businesses. These have included stakes in hotels, toll roads, supermarkets and ports, often in partnership with investors from Singapore or Malaysia. (According to The Economist’s obituary of Lo Hsing Han, by 1998, more than half of Singapore’s investments in Burma, valued at US$1.3 billion, were made with Asia World.)
During the final years of the Than Shwe regime, Asia World also partnered with Chinese state-owned firms on two of Burma’s biggest construction projects—the Shwe gas pipeline, linking the Arakan coast and China’s remote, energy-hungry southwest, and the suspended Myitsone hydropower dam in Kachin State, also designed to meet China’s insatiable appetite for electricity.
More recently, Asia World has also been accused of involvement in large-scale land-grabbing in northern Shan State, where a dam is being constructed on the upper Salween River at Kunlong—again, to meet China’s energy needs. According to the Shan Human Rights Foundation, the company has seized farmland in 60 villages to build the dam, and also confiscated land to complete a 100-km highway to the Chinese border used to bring supplies to the dam.
With no shortage of cash or Asian partners keen to invest in projects in Burma, it is possible that Law’s visit to Canada was less about seeking new sources of capital, and more about taking advantage of the “mutual investment opportunities,” which the British Columbia government says Premier Clark highlighted during her meeting with the Burmese delegation and their Asean counterparts. One has to wonder if Law is really the kind of person Clark wants her province’s businesses to partner up with, given that Asia World’s more legitimate areas of operations involve some of the most controversial development projects in Burma today.
An Investment-fueled Conflict
One of the consequences of Asia World’s investments in northern Burma has been an intensification of conflict in a part of the country where the presence of a megaproject is almost invariably followed by an increase in troops on the ground.
Tensions over the Myitsone dam, where Asia World partnered with dam building giant CPI, have been blamed by many for the collapse in June 2011 of a 17-year-old ceasefire between Burma’s government army and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). Although the project was officially suspended by presidential decree some three months after the conflict began, it has yet to be canceled and none of the thousands of villagers displaced to make way for the dam have been allowed to move back to their homes.
Similarly, fighting has intensified in northern Shan State since Asia World and a different Chinese partner began another dam project at Kunlong in 2012. Clashes between government troops and the KIA and its ethnic Palaung allies now occur regularly in this heavily militarized area.
It was against this backdrop that Seng Zin, a well-known rights activist from Kachin State, was planning to travel to Canada in August to attend a human-rights training program in Ottawa. The long-time member of the Kachin Women’s Association of Thailand (KWAT), a women’s rights group started by exiles from northern Burma, had been invited to take part in the program by the Nobel Women’s Initiative, which offered to cover all her expenses.
Despite having received a visa to visit France earlier in the year, however, immigration officials at the Canadian embassy in Bangkok denied her the chance to take part in the training program in Ottawa, citing her lack of financial resources.
The decision—made the same week that Steven Law was meeting senior government officials in Canada—did not come as a surprise to the outspoken women’s rights advocate. “A lot of Burmese government authorities and businessman can travel abroad now, but we activists still have great trouble,” she said.
Seng Zin said she had planned to use her trip to speak with Canadian authorities about Burmese troops’ record of sexual violence against women in Kachin State. Since the conflict in her home state began in 2011, KWAT has released a series of reports documenting such abuses.
“I want to tell the Canadian government that in Burma there are a lot of human rights violations going on and some kinds of investment have made this worse. There are many things that haven’t changed, the cronies are doing very well now that they are legitimate, but the people are still suffering,” she said.