Ruling Party Hardliner Aung Thaung Dead at 74

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 23 July 2015

RANGOON — Aung Thaung, a senior member of Burma’s ruling party with a reputation for hardline politicking that included alleged links to an infamous attack on the motorcade of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi more than a decade ago, died on Thursday at a hospital in Singapore. He was 74.

Win Myint, a fellow Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) lawmaker who plans to take his place in an election due Nov. 8, told The Irrawaddy that he was informed of Aung Thaung’s passing by the deceased man’s daughter on Thursday morning.

The Union Solidarity and Development Party adviser had been hospitalized two weeks ago, when on the afternoon of July 9, an ambulance cruised along the deserted boulevards of Naypyidaw to the airport of Burma’s capital. In the back of the vehicle, the ex-colonel laid unconscious after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage the previous night, and out on the airstrip a chartered plane was waiting to fly him to Singapore for treatment.

Known as a political hardliner who was close to former dictator Snr-Gen Than Shwe, the former military colonel’s name had become virtually synonymous with notoriety in an era of political reform that has otherwise seen many of Aung Thaung’s colleagues rehabilitate their reputations.

He was believed to be among the country’s wealthiest men—ill-gotten gains, it is widely believed—after serving as minister of industry under Burma’s former military regime.

Hailing from Taung Tha, a provincial town 80 kilometers southwest of Mandalay, the bespectacled Lower House lawmaker previously served as a leading member of the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA).

Founded by Than Shwe, the so-called “social association” that in 2010 transformed itself into a political party, the USDP, was infamous for clamping down on opposition to the junta, leading Suu Kyi to once describe the group as “a gang of thugs resembling Nazi Brownshirts.”

He has long been accused of orchestrating a mob attack on Suu Kyi’s convoy in northern Burma in 2003, when about 70 supporters of her National League for Democracy (NLD) were killed in an incident known as the “Depayin Massacre.”

When anti-Muslim riots hit central Burma in March 2013, The Straits Times of Singapore hinted at his possible connection to the communal strife by describing the emergence of a new Buddhist paramilitary force known as the “Taung Tha Army,” noting that Taung Tha is a town in Mandalay Division that “happened to be home to the notoriously hardline Aung Thaung.”

However, Aung Thaung has consistently denied any involvement in those incidents, telling The Irrawaddy in a June 2013 interview that the accusations were “nonsense” and “described without firm evidence.”

Aung Thaung was again thrown into the international spotlight last November, when the US Treasury Department blacklisted him for “intentionally undermining the positive political and economic transition in Burma.”

He later said he thought the sanctions, preventing US companies from doing business with him, were prompted by “someone’s request inside the country,” but the USDP leader declined to elaborate.

Despite his repeated denial of playing a leading role in the repressive regime that preceded the current quasi-civilian government, Aung Thaung has admitted to having a close relationship with Than Shwe, but attempted to temper speculation by describing that closeness as “to some extent,” saying there were others with tighter ties to the former strongman.

He had, nonetheless, not shied away from expressing his admiration for the man who ruled Burma with an iron fist from 1992 to 2011. In an interview with The Voice weekly a few weeks before his sudden illness, he praised the 2008 Constitution, which bans Suu Kyi from the presidency and entrenches a political role for the military, as Than Shwe’s greatest gift to Burma.

“The charter brings democracy to the country. It is his benevolent legacy. Were it not for it, there would have been many problems in the country,” he said.

Aung Thaung is survived by four children, some of whom are believed to be among the wealthiest people in Burma, with extensive business interests across multiple industries. IGE Co. Ltd. is publicly known as Aung Thaung family business, active in oil, gas and mineral extraction, as well as the high-end Amara Hotel in Naypyidaw and United Amara Bank.