Burma

To Court or Clamp Down? The NLD and Burma’s Cronies

By Kyaw Hsu Mon 23 February 2016

RANGOON — With the National League for Democracy (NLD) set to take power on April 1, political and economic observers will be closely watching for change, including whether the rampant cronyism that dogged the country for decades under successive military-backed administrations, will continue unchecked.

While it is no secret that Burma’s top brass has long had a cozy relationship with the country’s so-called cronies, neither is the NLD immune from the advances of the financially powerful.

Take Tay Za, a Burmese business tycoon who has for years had close ties with former military generals but who also reportedly sponsored two recent trainings for NLD lawmakers, backed by the Asia Green Development Bank, owned by the tycoon.

Then there is Zaw Zaw, chairman of the Max Myanmar Group of Companies, who has allegedly helped to foot the bill for NLD party activities despite his military-friendly history.

Khine Maung Yi, a former Lower House lawmaker and a central executive committee member of the National Democratic Force, said that cronies have had an outsized influence on politics for the last five years, and that the trend only seems set to persist.

Government officials such as commerce minister Win Myint and sports minister Tint Hsan, as well as lawmakers including Yuzana Htay Myint and Zay Kabar Khin Shwe, “have close links to businessmen, so they can easily approve some national projects for such people—building Wunna Theikdi Stadium [one of the largest stadiums in Naypyidaw], for instance, went to Max Myanmar Group of Companies,” Khine Maung Yi told The Irrawaddy.

“Over the last five years, even some opposition party members were in business with cronies, some of whose donations were visible and some not. That’s why I’m saying that this practice of cronyism will only continue under the new government,” he said.

Sein Win, former managing editor of Mizzima News and the executive director of the Myanmar Journalism Institute, echoed Khine Maung Yi’s thoughts, though he also expressed some optimism ahead of what is billed as a new political era.

“The NLD has announced that they will focus on anti-corruption, so it is believed they won’t keep up the practice of cronyism,” Sein Win said.

In December, the NLD released its economic policy, stressing five pillars: fiscal prudence, lean and efficient government, revitalizing agriculture, monetary and fiscal stability and creating a functioning infrastructure. The NLD at the time also emphasized that its policy will comply with domestic laws and that it is consistent with international human rights standards for the improvement of foreign direct investment (FDI).

Still, Yan Myo Thein, a political analyst, said that the NLD’s economic policy fails to mention how it will address cronyism, which he believes is a glaring omission.

“There should be a detailed plan for handling the issue. If there is a good economy policy and anti-corruption [measures], these cronies will [be forced to] change,” he said. Cronies will continue to exert influence, he added, “If the government doesn’t prepare for these issues.”

Yet the issue is not so clear-cut. Maung Mg Soe, an economist, has a different outlook; contending that crony businessmen might be important for Burma’s development.

“I don’t accept that all cronies are opportunists. There might be good businessmen out there who want to change and support the new government. We shouldn’t neglect or rebuke them, because we could use them to spur the country’s growth,” Maung Mg Soe said. “The NLD should create better policies for these types of people.”

According to the World Bank, Burma’s GDP has increased dramatically since 2011 and is estimated to reach 8.5 percent growth by the end of the current fiscal year.

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