Sources in Rangoon’s business community report that tycoon Tay Za visited Russia in June at the same time as Burma’s Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing. The commander is believed to have gone to Moscow to settle arms deals that were signed with Russia under Burma’s past military regime.
Sen Gen Min Aung Hlaing visited Moscow on June 23-29 at the invitation of Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu.
He inspected the JSC RAC MiG plant near the capital Moscow and was provided with a test flight demonstration of Russia’s newly upgraded jet fighter, the MiG-29 M, government newspaper The New Light of Myanmar has reported. He also met Burmese military scholarship trainees who are receiving Russian training.
Tay Za, who is on a US sanctions list for procuring arms for Burma’s former military regime, flew to Moscow shortly after Ming Aung Hlaing arrived, several sources in Rangoon’s business community told The Irrawaddy.
Three prominent Burmese businessmen said during separate conversations that Tay Za met up with Min Aung Hlaing in the Russian capital, adding that the tycoon had also met the Burmese military trainees and provided them with some of money for their overseas stay. They said Tay Za had flown to Russia in the company of several other Burmese tycoons.
The businessmen declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the topic.
Tay Za, 48, is one of Burma’s richest men and is the chairman of Htoo Group, a conglomerate with businesses interests in teak trade, banking, hotels and the airline industry.
He has been on the US government sanction list since 2008 because he helped Burma’s repressive military regime procure weapons overseas. The US Treasury has described him as “an arms dealer and financial henchman of Burma’s repressive junta.” Tay Za has denied the charges.
He allegedly helped the junta obtain arms during Burma’s decades of international isolation, when it could only buy weapons from China, Russia and North Korea. On at least one occasion he reportedly helped secure a deal to buy Russian-made helicopter gunships and other military hardware.
Maj Aung Lynn Htut, a former Burmese intelligence officer who currently lives in the United States as a political refugee, said Tay Za had first helped the junta with illicit export of Burmese timber and later used his connections to put the regime in touch with Russian arms dealers.
“When the SLORC [State Law and Order Restoration Council] just came to have power [in 1988], it had no money. So a large amount timber was cut down to sell. That’s how the SLORC became acquainted with Tay Za,” Aung Lynn Htut told The Irrawaddy.
“[Later] the regime could buy MI 17 [helicopters] from Russia, thanks to Tay Za’s links,” he said.
Burma’s Air Force fleet currently consists of aircraft models from Russia, such as the Mikoyan MiG-29 fighters and several types of attack helicopters, and Chinese, American and European models. Burma’s army is known to have Russian surface-to-air missiles and artillery.
Diplomatic sources in Rangoon said they believe that Min Aung Hlaing has been trying to clear arms deals with Russia, China and North Korea that were signed under Burma’s past military regime.
A Western diplomat said Min Aung Hlaing might have called on certain Burmese businessmen, such as Tay Za, to help settle these deals, adding that it was not uncommon for businessmen to sort out international weapons sales. “There are many brokers in the business and millions of cash involved,” he said.
Aung Lynn Htut, the former Burmese intelligence officer, said he believes that Ming Aung Hlaing’s recent trip to Russia had been part of a Burmese effort to maintain good relationships and smooth out past deals with Moscow for supply of military hardware.
“Since Burma is in an early stage of military cooperation with the US, I think it has to go to Russia to counterbalance its relations,” the ex-spy said in late June. “I also think that his trip is to settle contracted deals between Russia and the previous military regime, which were signed by Vice Snr-Gen Maung Aye, the then second-in-command of the Burmese junta.”
The American government has greatly improved its ties with Burma in the past two years following the introduction of political reforms under President Thein Sein. The US is rebuilding its ties with Burma’s military, while urging it to cut its ties with North Korea and clean up its poor human rights record.
Earlier this week, the US imposed sanctions on Lt-Gen Thein Htay, the head of Burma’s Directorate of Defense Industries. Washington said that the organization had carried out missile research and development and used North Korean experts in violation of a UN Security Council ban arms deals with the isolated communist regime.