Low-Profile Arms Dealer Continues to Supply Myanmar Military’s Weapons

By The Irrawaddy 12 October 2021

Since 2010, a low-profile businessman has been involved in buying military equipment and technologies for the Directorate of Defense Industries (DDI), a unit of Myanmar’s military that produces ammunition and weapons, including armored vehicles and tanks.

The owner of the Singapore-based STE Global Trading Co, U Tun Hlaing, is a close confidant of former Lieutenant General Thein Htay, who served as the head of DDI, sources told The Irrawaddy.

Despite retiring from the military, Thein Htay still advises DDI. He was blacklisted by the US Treasury Department in 2013 for buying military equipment from North Korea in defiance of a United Nations resolution. The sanctions prohibited US citizens from engaging in transactions with Thein Htyay and froze any assets he had in the US.

Thein Htay also joined a delegation led by General Thura Shwe Mann in North Korea in November 2008.

Unlike other arms dealers, U Tun Hlaing does not import weapons for Myanmar’s military but is the sole supplier of materials and equipment needed to manufacture weapons.

General Thura Shwe Mann and Lt-Gen Thein Htay in North Korea in 2008.

There were reports in mid-February that the Singaporean police detained U Tun Hlaing in response to complaints that his two Singapore-based companies — Excellence Metal Casting and freight firm STE Global Trading — were buying North Korean arms, in violation of international sanctions.

However, according to sources, U Tun Hlaing was not detained in Singapore and is living in Myanmar.

U Tun Hlaing and well-known Myanmar tycoon U Tay Za are also relatives by marriage. In February last year, U Tun Hlaing’s daughter Ma Thet Hnin Hlaing, managing director of Hong Bao Asia Co, married U Tay Za’s son Ko Pyae Phyo Tay Za, managing director of Htoo Group of Companies.

U Tun Hlaing (second from the left) and U Tay Za (third from the right) at a wedding reception in 2020.

U Tun Hlaing, according to sources, is nearly as rich as U Tay Za, the chairman of Htoo, who has close ties to Myanmar’s military.

Under the previous military regime in the 2000s, the Htoo Trading Company was involved in timber, transport, tourism, construction, property development, palm oil production and arms deals.

Through his other company, Myanmar Avia Export, U Tay Za procured MI-17 helicopters, MiG-29 fighter jets and aircraft parts for Myanmar’s military from Russia. The company is Myanmar’s sole representative for Russia’s Export Military Industrial Group (Mapo) and Russian helicopter company Rostvertol.

Despite his wealth, U Tun Hlaing has kept a low profile and mostly lives in Singapore, sources told The Irrawaddy. His family previously ran the Water Library, a French restaurant, and the Chinese Hong Bao restaurant on Pyay Road in Yangon.

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