Looking for a Few Good Cronies

By The Irrawaddy 10 September 2013

Now that Myanmar and the nations of the West have begun to open up to each other, the search for business partners is on. The trouble, however, is that even as international sanctions against Myanmar are removed, many of the country’s richest businessmen remain blacklisted for their ties to the former regime and other alleged offenses.

The individuals in question know there’s a lot riding on their rehabilitation in the eyes of foreign governments. That’s why some have been keen to show that they are ready to open up their books, pay their taxes and return confiscated land and other ill-gotten property.

For its part, the Obama administration is said to be actively seeking to identify a few contrite cronies who can play a more constructive role in rebuilding the country’s economy. But leaders in Washington and other Western capitals will need iron-clad assurances that there will be no backsliding before any names are struck off the list.

So far, two likely candidates have come to the fore: U Zaw Zaw, the chairman of the Max Myanmar Group, and U Win Aung, the president of the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry. Sources say both men could soon become poster boys for a kinder, cleaner business culture in Myanmar.

Another name that comes up regularly is U Chit Khaing, managing director of the Eden Group, one of Myanmar’s largest conglomerates. When former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made her historic visit to Naypyitaw in November 2011, she stayed at one of his hotels; and more recently he was issued a visa to visit the United States—a sure sign that he is regarded as relatively uncontaminated by his past.

Less likely to get a clean bill of health is anyone connected with the trade in rubies and jade. In July, Washington extended its ban on imports of precious stones from Myanmar, owing to the still murky nature of an industry based in conflict-wracked border regions. Weapons dealing and having a hand in Myanmar’s lucrative drugs trade are also frowned upon.

On the other hand, a good relationship with the democratic opposition will almost certainly count in your favor if you’re looking to clear your name. That’s why U Zaw Zaw, U Tay Za (chairman of the Htoo Trading Group), and others have been lining up to donate to the National League for Democracy (NLD).

Ironically, however, this largesse has probably done more to tarnish the name of the NLD than it has to clean up the images of its newfound benefactors. At a party fundraiser last December, for instance, the NLD was criticized for taking 70 million kyat (US $72,000) from U Tay Za and 135 million kyat ($138,000) from Sky Net, a television operator and a subsidiary of Shwe Than Lwin Company owned by U Kyaw Win, a close associate of President U Thein Sein.

A number of critics have also noted that the amount handed out to the NLD was pocket change for Myanmar’s super-rich. Some highfliers have been known to blow more than $100,000 in a single night at casinos overseas.

Myanmar’s tycoons also know that they have to walk a fine line to avoid upsetting the powers that be still lurking in the shadows.

Last year, for instance, a crony in his fifties who is notorious for his appetite for women and taste for expensive cars earned the ire of retired Deputy Snr-Gen Maung Aye, formerly number two in the regime that ruled until 2011, for his overtures to the NLD. Another, younger tycoon was reportedly reduced to tears when he was taken to task for visiting Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s residence and making donations to her party. He apologized profusely for his offense, but later boasted to some foreign visitors that he had “bought” the NLD and its iconic leader.

Given the predatory nature of Myanmar’s economy during the years of military rule, there may be more than a few wolves in sheep’s clothing out there. But according to Sean Turnell, an expert on Myanmar’s economy at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, some may eventually see the light.

“They are political animals as much as economic ones,” Mr. Turnell says of those who rose to fabulous wealth over the past two decades. “But certainly there are some, too, who may emerge as something else. On this front, I guess we have to hope so, since they are amongst the few with sufficient capital to do transformative things, if this is what their desire is.”

This story first appeared in the September 2013 print issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.