Tycoon Sues Journal on Defamation Charges

By Lawi Weng & Htet Naing Zaw 26 November 2013

RANGOON — One of Burma’s most well-known tycoons, Htoo Group of Companies CEO Tay Za, plans to sue local weekly journal The Sun Rays on accusations of defamation after the publication ran a front page story with his photo under the headline “Cronies should jump into the Andaman Sea.”

In a statement on his Facebook page on Sunday, Tay Za said the news journal had “no standards” in terms of journalistic ethics and he had instructed his legal advisors to prepare to file a lawsuit against the journal’s publisher Moe Hein.

The article, published on Sunday, launched an attack on businessmen, known as ‘cronies’ in Burma, who have become rich by cutting business deals with the Burma Army during military rule. It singled out Tay Za, accusing his Htoo Group of Companies of bribing the military and government officials in order to gain licenses to plunder the impoverished country’s rich resources.

Tay Za expressed frustration with the story and said he came from a patriotic family that had worked for the good of Burma, adding that Moe Thein is an American passport holder.

“I will deal with this case within the rule of law [and address] his writing about me and use of defamatory language,” he wrote. “His actions are very similar to those of a street boy, but I will respond within the rule of law.”

The tycoon, who has become one of Burma’s wealthiest men after building a business empire during the past 25 years of military rule, said he would use the court system to redress the allegations against him. “No one will run away when I file charges. I will even take action against other media groups who write insults about me,” he warned.

Burma’s court system has been deemed corrupt and lacking in independence by international human rights groups. It was frequently used by the former junta to lock up political prisoners and journalists.

Under Burmese law, defamation is a broadly defined criminal offensive and anyone found guilty could face up to two years imprisonment.

Nyi Nyi Aung, a spokesman of Htoo Group of Companies, confirmed on Tuesday that a lawsuit would be filed against The Sun Rays journal.

“We will have our own lawyer and we are going to charge them. We are collecting facts at the moment,” he said. “We found that most media groups write news based on media ethics, but this journal has no ethnics in writing about him [Tay Za]. The Sun Rays journal attacked him personally … This is why we have to charge them.”

The Sun Rays editor-in-chief Moe Hein said he was unperturbed by the legal steps that Tay Za had announced, adding that he stood by his article. “It is not surprising to see such of a statement issued on his Facebook. I do not have any emotion regarding his statement, nor do I feel I made a mistake in writing about him,” he said.

Moe Hein said it was the task of Burma’s nascent independent media sector to criticize the business relations between the country’s powerful army and influential businessmen.

“We knew that one day they will charge us at court for criticizing them… They have the right to do it. That is rule of law in Burma,” he said.

Local media industry members urged caution for both sides involved in the row.

Aung Thu Ra, secretary of the Myanmar Journalists Network, said other news publication should monitor the case closely to learn how the courts deal with defamation complaints.

“It’s better to solve problem within the rule of law instead of doing other ways. But media groups have a duty to see whether the court serves fair justice in this case,” he said.

Kyi Min, a media trainer based in Rangoon, said The Sun Rays also carried responsibility in the row as its journalistic standards had been poor.

“They do not understand anything about journalism if we looked at it from our perspective. They are attacking cronies as if it were a boxing arena,” he said, adding, “I think that both sides will have a problem if they did not ease tensions.”

Tay Za’s business empire has expanded rapidly since the early 1990s when his firms moved from agribusiness into timber logging, mining, construction and hotels, banking and private airlines.

His profited from his close relations with relations with the military regime, for which he also arranged arms deals in Russia. The US government placed on a US sanction list in 2008 and dubbed him “an arms dealer and financial henchman of Burma’s repressive junta.”

Earlier this month, he flew to the Russian republic of Tartastan to represent Burma government interests and he met with the president, trade minister and representatives of a helicopter factory.