Note to Washington: Use Your Blacklist Wisely

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 29 April 2015

When the United States removed one of Burma’s most prominent businessmen, Win Aung, from the Specially Designated Nationals (SDN) list last week, other blacklisted tycoons surely sent silent prayers that they would be next in line for removal from the list that bars them from business with their American counterparts.

Many of Burma’s wealthy businessmen and women were awarded the dishonor thanks to their links to the former military regime, often for using their connections to notorious hardliners for personal financial gain. But if the United States was ready to forgive Win Aung, who according to a 2007 US diplomatic cable published by Wikileaks supported the Than Shwe regime and “used his contacts with the senior generals to amass and maintain his fortune,” why wouldn’t the rest of them be eligible for removal from the list?

What is most encouraging for the so-called “cronies” is the fast-tracked approach of reengagement with the Burmese government since President Thein Sein assumed power in 2011. The United States began to ease its near-total ban on business with Burma in 2012, and Win Aung is the first businessman to be removed from the SDN list after relations started to warm. While two others have been added to the list—Lt-Gen Thein Htay was blacklisted in 2013 for involvement in arms deals with North Korea, and ruling party lawmaker Aung Thaung was added last year for undermining reforms and “perpetuating violence”—none of Burma’s business elites have since been added to America’s wall of shame.

Hence, delisting Win Aung, a well-connected tycoon and head of Burma’s largest business association, the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (UMFCCI), could indicate that the United States is eager to do business in Burma so as not to fall behind other Western markets rushing to invest.

The US Treasury Department said in a statement that Win Aung was delisted because he had “taken steps to support reform.” With little further explanation or context, this statement could mean just about anything. For instance, this could easily be interpreted as, “we don’t care what you did in the past, so long as you aren’t connected to North Korea. Just mind your business, we’ll embrace you.”

Choosing Win Aung for delisting is interesting for a few reasons, as there are other big-business cronies on the list that might have been just as good as a starting point. But it’s possible that he was delisted because he is chairman of the UMFCCI, which represents more than 10,000 domestic companies.

If the US Treasury intends to remove more businesspeople from the list, which it appears inclined to do, it should be mindful that many of those people are highly suspected of involvement in drug trafficking and money laundering—crimes that were pervasive under the former regime, and from which they are still reaping benefit.

These cronies have disguised themselves as businesspeople; construction, trading, you name it. Many have ties to some ethnic militias notorious for drug-running along Burma’s eastern border. Hopefully, the US government takes these allegations seriously, and doesn’t want its own entrepreneurs entering into deals with drug kingpins in suits.

And then there are others on the list with known links to human rights abuse, land confiscation and environmental damage. Win Aung could be considered one of them, as he was granted enormous logging concessions in protected areas under the former regime.

That being the case, the US Treasury ought to take great care in approving “businesspeople” for removal from the blacklist. If not, it could—inadvertently or otherwise—be helping the bad guys get rich while the rest are left to suffer the consequences of decades of irresponsible business.