During the recent Independence Day commemoration, with all eyes on Myanmar junta chief Min Aung Hlaing’s attempts to masquerade as the country’s legitimate president, one group of guests went mostly overlooked: the junta cronies who attended events related to the ceremony and accepted honors from the regime leader.
The Irrawaddy has learned that dozens of cronies were invited to the event commemorating the 75th anniversary of independence and a related dinner reception on Jan. 4 in Myanmar’s capital Naypyitaw.
They included powerful ones like U Aung Ko Win, chairman of KBZ Group; U Khin Maung Aye of CB Bank; U Zaw Zaw of Max Myanmar; Serge Pun of FMI Holding; U Htay Myint of Yuzana Group of Companies; U Zaw Win Shein of Ayeyar Hinthar Holdings Company Limited; Myanmar Rice Federation chairman U Ye Min Aung; and U Aung Myo Min Din, the founder of Amazing Hotels & Resorts Group.
Though the event was covered heavily by junta media, the cronies’ names were not included in lists of attendees, conceivably to protect them from social punishment and consumer boycotts by the Myanmar people, as well as from Western sanctions.
One of the cronies who missed the lavish event was U Tay Za, arms dealer and chairman of Htoo Trading Group, who is under US and UK sanctions.
Also missing from the event was Tun Min Latt, one of the junta’s arms brokers, who has deep ties with Min Aung Hlaing’s family, as he is now in custody in Thailand facing charges of drug trafficking, money laundering and transnational organized crime.
Myanmar tycoons have traditionally been close to the military and its top leaders, particularly since the previous military government era, which ended in early 2011.
Under the former regime they would shuttle between Yangon and Naypyitaw to pay respects to then dictator General Than Shwe and his powerful deputies, General Maung Aye and General Tin Aung Myint Oo.
When the military proxy civilian government came to power in March 2011, the tycoons rushed to visit then president and ex-General Thein Sein, as well as current coup leader Min Aung Hlaing, in his capacity as military leader, a post he still holds.
Apart from occasional visits to pay their respects, it has also become a ritual for them to flock to Naypyitaw on occasions like Independence Day or Union Day celebrations. This year’s Independence Day was a more elaborate affair, given that it was the diamond jubilee, and Min Aung Hlaing marked it on a grand scale. The cronies responded eagerly to their invitations, lining up to attend.
From past experience, they know that showing up at such events is time well spent, as they are often rewarded with highly lucrative business concessions.
For this year’s Independence Day celebration, both KBZ and CB received contracts to provide fireworks, decorations, catering services and displays at the event. The fireworks cost over US$2 million alone.
KBZ chairman U Aung Ko Win has deep ties with former and current military leaders including Gen. Than Shwe and Gen. Maung Aye. He was known to be a protégé of the latter.
When several tycoons who were deemed close to the NLD government were interrogated and briefly detained following the coup, the KBZ chairman was untouched. NLD-linked tycoon U Chit Khine, the chairman of the Eden Group of Companies, was charged with corruption by the regime last year.
CB Bank’s U Khin Maung Aye disappeared from public view after the coup and was rumored to be living abroad; his son studies in the US. However, he later quietly returned to Myanmar and began working with the regime. He was a neighbor of former president Thein Sein and is close to several top generals.
Among the cronies who attended the regime’s Independence Day celebration, there were also some new faces like U Aung Myo Min Din and U Zaw Win Shein.
A rising star among the new cronies, U Aung Myo Min Din of Amazing Hotel and Resort Group is close to the regime leader’s family, having built hotels for their businesses. The Ananta Hotel in Bagan was built for Aung Pyae Sone, son of Min Aung Hlaing.
Another new kid in town is U Zaw Win Shein. He is an adopted son of former Major General Soe Maung, who was a key President’s Office minister when the military proxy Thein Sein administration was in power. Most of the capital for his Ayeyar Hinthar Holdings Co. Ltd. came from Thiha Thura Tin Aung Myint Oo, a former general and vice president during the Thein Sein administration. U Zaw Win Shein owns A Bank and now also owns Qatari telecom Ooredoo’s operation in Myanmar.
U Zaw Win Shein was among those who received honorary decorations from Min Aung Hlaing, lauded for their “outstanding services for the good of Myanmar”.
According to a list released by the junta, other recipients of the award include well-known Kachin businessman and leader of the Peace-Talk Creation Group Yup Zaw Khaung; U Zaw Min Win, ex-president of the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (UMFCCI); and Serge Pun of FMI Holdings, which owns Yoma Bank. The International Finance Corporation (IFC), a member of the World Bank Group, divested from Yoma Bank after its ties with military companies were exposed.
At the Independence Day dinner, witnesses saw expensive wines and imported whiskies served at tables where cronies sat and mingled with generals and other guests, sharing laughs and exchanging smiles and loud toasts of “Cheers!”—to Independence Day, but also to new business opportunities.