NAYPYIDAW — State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi reassured some of Burma’s most prominent tycoons that their place in Burma’s economy and society was secure, so long as they backed government policy, left themselves open to scrutiny, and “worked for others.”
She stressed that her intention was not to dwell on the past, expressing optimism that past behaviors could be forgiven and reformed.
The State Counselor’s comments were made during a meeting with the country’s top listed taxpayers—many of whom have been labeled “cronies” due to their cozy relationship with the former military junta—at the Myanmar National Convention Center-2 in Naypyidaw on Saturday.
The governor of the Central Bank and the minister of national planning and finance, among other dignitaries, also addressed the meeting, in order to rally support among Burma’s business elite behind the government’s thus far vaguely defined economic agenda.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said she was not against some citizens getting rich, as long as they did so “fairly.” Regarding tycoons who made fortunes exploiting links with Burma’s repressive military rulers—helping to finance their rule in turn—she said, “We can’t mend the past. But I would like to request that they act fairly at present.”
Acknowledging the recklessness and disregard for common welfare with which certain business empires were built—but appealing to the better natures of those responsible—she asked, “Can’t those who have previously worked for their own self-interest work for others in the future? Don’t they have the necessary attributes to work for others? I believe it is possible.”
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi also broached the topic of corruption, stressing that each citizen was enjoined to do his or her bit in the fight against it. She encouraged anyone to file a complaint with the State Counselor’s Office regarding any instance of corruption.
U Khin Shwe, the owner of the Zaykabar conglomerate—who, among others, has recently been removed from America’s list of targeted sanctions—told The Irrawaddy that tycoons had previously found it difficult to operate responsibly because of the economic sanctions; but now, thanks to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, they were able to cooperate more with international partners, and reduce their formerly heavy reliance on China.
U Ko Ko Htwe, chairman of Taw Win Family Co. Ltd, welcomed the state counselor’s words. He said that businessmen who only care for their self-interest should meet the full force of the law.
Former parliamentarian U Ye Htun, reflecting on a history of land and asset grabs in an environment of little to no transparency, remarked that the popularly elected National League for Democracy government was in a difficult place: unable to ignore or bypass the cronies, but aware of the moral pitfalls of cooperating too closely with them.
He said the cronies would continue their harmful practices if they could still profit from them, meaning the government needs to send a strong message that “under the table practices” would no longer be tolerated, and that cronies would be expected to “pay tax and abide by the law.”
However, U Ko Ko Htwe of Taw Win Family Co. countered that is was the government, rather than business tycoons, that has been chiefly responsible for corruption in the country.
“Cronies are blamed for giving big bribes in a give-and-take system,” he said, noting that the problem lay in members of the government demanding such bribes in the first place: “we would be quite happy if we didn’t have to give them.”
Not everyone at the event was enthused. Businessmen Dr. Soe Tun complained to reporters that only bankers and cronies were allowed to speak at the event; other entrepreneurs and tradesmen were left out in the cold. He claimed that the government’s sole motivation in hosting the event was to solicit the help and cooperation of top cronies in furthering their policies.
During the meeting, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi admitted that economic growth over the first six months of her government’s term beginning in April had fallen below expectations.
A sense of urgency that democratic reforms be matched with an economic dividend for the Burmese people may have spurred her overtures to Burma’s top tycoons—who, although reviled by much of the public, have a stranglehold over large portions of Burma’s economy.
Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko