Despite Solid Evidence, Businessman Denies Selling Arms to Myanmar Junta

By The Irrawaddy 15 March 2022

Until his and his family’s shady connections with the Myanmar military were exposed by The New York Times late last year, U Jonathan Kyaw Thaung was mostly known as the CEO of KT Group, which operates a port terminal and conducted the renovation of the Pegu Club in Yangon, among other business activities.

The Times’ story unmasked the Kyaw Thaungs as people who have quietly equipped the Myanmar military, which has long been notorious for its atrocities against the country’s ethnic people. Now it has killed more than 1,500 people since last year’s coup for rejecting military rule in the country.

It turned out that the Kyaw Thaungs became bedfellows with the military by securing lucrative contracts to provide it with European aircraft, a French coastal surveillance system and Italian guns for the navy—among others—while avoiding Western sanctions.

Despite the evidence provided by the Times and Justice For Myanmar, an advocacy group tracking the Myanmar military and its associates’ activities, U Jonathan Kyaw Thaung, denied any involvement in arms trade.

“I have nothing to do with arms,” he told The Irrawaddy, saying he even refrained from businesses linked to fishing or poultry, as his father suggested, reflecting a Buddhist belief that discourages animal farming.

“I come from a rich family. I don’t need to make quick money like some people,” he added.

But the 39-year-old didn’t deny his relationship with coup leader Min Aung Hlaing. He admitted that he was introduced to the junta boss (who at the time was Myanmar military commander-in-chief) nearly one decade ago by U Aung Ko Win, the chairman of Kanbawza (KBZ) Group of Companies and one of the richest men in the country. The meeting led Jonathan Kyaw Thaung to meet Min Aung Hlaing’s son U Aung Pyae Sone and daughter Daw Khin Thiri Thetmon, both of whom were at the time trying to expand their family businesses.

However, the Irish-Burmese man told The Irrawaddy that despite U Aung Ko Win’s introduction, he was never close to Min Aung Hlaing and his wife Daw Kyu Kyu Hla. He insisted that he has not met them since the coup in February last year.

U Jonathan Kyaw Thaung

When asked about his involvement with Min Aung Hlaing’s son in the purchase of JF-17 fighter jets and K-8 training aircraft from Pakistan as reported by military sources, he denied it.

The Irrawaddy has learned that U Jonathan Kyaw Thaung got lucrative business concessions linked to the military with the help of KBZ’s U Aung Ko Win, whom he refers to as “Uncle” out of respect.

They were so close that U Jonathan Kyaw Thaung arranged overseas trips by hiring a private jet for U Aung Ko Win, one of Myanmar’s richest men. Sometimes he traveled with him for leisure and business trips, including gambling in Macau. He recalled to friends that on one of the trips he asked the pilot to make a U-turn while flying from the east to the west of the country, in order to dine at their favorite Korean restaurant. U Jonathan Kyaw Thaung once proudly said, according to one of his friends, that U Aung Ko Win was so dependent on him that he had to take care of him “like a baby”, including on issues like visa and immigration.

U Aung Ko Win made a fortune during Myanmar’s previous regime, which controlled Myanmar from 1988 to early 2011, by cultivating a friendship with the then junta’s second man, Senior General Maung Aye. The personal ties helped the small town government school teacher from Shan State enter the banking, aviation, mining and other industries as the general at the time was the head of the regime’s trade council, which oversaw export, import and joint ventures with foreign countries. U Aung Ko Win came to public prominence with his Kanbawza—locally known as KBZ—bank.

Despite his previous ties to the former regime, the banker supported Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy government, which came to power after the 2015 general election. When Myanmar was hard hit by COVID-19 in 2020, U Aung Ko Win was among a handful of cronies who made serious contributions in the fight against the disease. He is not on the US sanctions list.

For all the blessings from, and connections to, the Myanmar military leadership, U Jonathan Kyaw Thaung has paid a price for his ties to the generals.

His TNT port terminal in Yangon is now struggling to be operational. Shortly before the coup, Maersk, the world’s largest container shipping firm, announced that it would not use the terminal that he leased from the military. Before that, a British port operator stopped running the port after the operator was put on a “dirty list” of international companies doing business with the military.  He admitted he was struggling to pay the leasing fees to the military.

After a stay in Thailand until last year, U Jonathan Kyaw Thaung is now believed to be in Dubai, where his father is now residing.

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