Zaw Zaw, the chairman of the Myanmar Football Federation and founder of Max Myanmar Group, may be the most socially conscious of those among Burma’s business elite who are regarded as cronies.
In a recent interview with The Irrawaddy, Zaw Zaw insists he has always played by the rules and has never exploited anyone for his own gain. He also laments that his business ambitions have been hampered by the imposition of international sanctions against him.
Zaw Zaw went on to say that fighting against one another, whether ideologically or physically, was a weakness of Burma’s people. As for younger generations at this time of great change, he said more job opportunities should be created and Burma’s education system must be improved for the betterment of the nation’s future.
Question: You used to say that even if you are a so-called ‘crony,’ you want to be a good one. Why is that?
Answer: I am Burmese and a native of this country. I have never betrayed my country. I love it and want it to be honored. I do business and pay taxes. At the same time, I take care of my staff as I would my children and carry out CSR [corporate social responsibility] for them. Nowadays, I have become a political victim and been called strange names. I don’t have any comment on that. What I do is just important. My belief is that I will do my best for my country no matter how I have been criticized. I will continue doing my business honestly. I will also help young people and nurture them to be brilliant.
Q: What is the value of your assets right now?
A: A valuation on my assets should be carried out first in order to answer this exactly. There are international valuation companies that assess us. What I mean is that I bought a house for 100 million kyat [US $125,000] before, but it may be worth a billion kyat now. So I can tell you exactly only after the valuation.
Q: Prior to 1990, you worked in Japan. You were an ordinary worker then. How did you manage in the last 20 years to build this life for yourself from those origins?
A: Actually, I went to Japan in 1990. In 1988, I was studying my final year at Rangoon University, majoring in mathematics. I am very careful with my time. I strove full time with the intelligence and prudence I gained, thanks to my teachers and parents, from primary school to graduation. I have always tried to achieve good results. Whatever I do, I want to make it happen and finish it. I also want to make it successful.
Another thing is that I have many friends and I don’t find it difficult to tolerate others. Besides that, I am honest, have never cheated anyone in my life even for a penny, and never committed any crime either. These are parts of my life profile. To be frank, I am where I am now because I have been striving full time and [this is the] cause and effect of what I’ve done.
Even though a 20-year period is not that long, in reality it is about a quarter or one-third of a lifetime. In some countries, there are many people who have become billionaires within five to 10 years. I am rich to a certain extent in Burma, but I am not competing with anyone in my country. It is very shameful if we compare with other counties. Our wealth is in fact quite small.
I want to compete with people in other countries in our education, social, health and economic sectors. Because these are my desired benchmarks, I have found that we haven’t reached any status and I am always ready to keep trying to achieve a better status for my country.
Q: You have established the Ayeyarwady Foundation, which donates to various philanthropic causes. But would it be fair to view such activities as equally beneficial to you and your businesses as a promotional vehicle? You mentioned CSR earlier.
A: The word CSR arrived in Burma not long ago. If you look at my donations, they began when I was young. When I was 12, I offered coats of whitewash over stupas in my town. I participated in all social occasions of joy or grief there. Likewise, Yegyi Township Association, a social organization for students from the same place, was founded only when I came to study at Rangoon University.
Then, I went to Japan to work. I worked there for about 20 hours a day. When I came back to Burma, I bought a fire truck and donated it. During that time, I didn’t know about CSR or know the word crony, which I and others have been labeled. I just did it because I was told by my teachers and parents that as a Burmese Buddhist, I should do such activities out of pure desire from my heart. If you ask me why I donate, I would say that helping needy people is a good thing and I will continue to assist them.
Q: You have said that your assets will be donated when you die. Where will you donate them?
A: According to Lord Buddha’s teaching, your assets won’t follow you after your death but kamma [the result or consequences of what you have done] will. I make donations and [pursue] merit because I want to take the consequences along with me. I bestow well-wishes and goodwill on others. Mainly bearing in mind Buddha’s teachings, I have decided to donate as much as I can before I die.
Q: You have supported opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and prominent democracy activist Min Ko Naing. Some people think you are trying to court Suu Kyi because you want your name to be removed from international sanctions lists. Any comment on that?
A: Why do we need to contend with each other, which will eventually lead to organizational schisms, in this fragile country? We have many things to do to re-establish it. Our country is still really poor and need is everywhere. Under such circumstances, if we go in opposite directions, we won’t reach a good destination. I want to tell everyone that I want to establish our country together with the state government, the opposition and the people. I only have this desire in mind.
Q: As a successful businessman, do you have any plans to enter the political arena?
A: I currently don’t have any plans for that. I want to create job opportunities for our people. They can survive properly only if they individually have a good income. So, apart from me, many young businessmen should emerge in Burma. Youths should also be given jobs as foreign investment comes into the country.
But at the moment, many Burmese have to go to other countries to find work. That doesn’t matter if they are working in those countries as educated persons or scholars. Unfortunately, since we can’t provide, they have to go there for lowly jobs. Personally, I want to create jobs for them in this country so they can work here. I have enough for my life’s security and can survive well. What I am striving for now is to compete with other countries, since I always have a competitive mind.
Q: Do you believe in the legitimacy of the ongoing political reforms in Burma led by President Thein Sein? Do you think this democratic transition will be successful?
A: I only have positive thinking about it. Compare our country’s situation two years ago and now! People can’t just say their wishes. It takes time for something to happen. Real effort is also needed. All tasks carried out under the current reform process are very good. For me, I only hope for the positive.