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    Southeast Asia
     Feb 21, 2008
Smart sanctions target Myanmar tycoon
By Brian McCartan

CHIANG MAI - The United States Treasury Department announced earlier this month that it will expand the personal and business sanctions it imposed on individual family members of Myanmar's ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) last year. Those included among the newly blacklisted were members and individuals associated with businessman Tay Za's state-linked commercial empire.

The recent sanctions are part of Washington's new so-called "smart sanctions" regime, designed to target specific generals and their associated business interests rather than the entire population. Before this month's announcement, the US had 



imposed sanctions on 30 individuals and seven businesses connected to the junta.

Designed in response to the junta's continued human rights abuses and political repression, including last year’s brutal crackdown on anti-government street protests, the sanctions in effect freeze any assets of targeted individuals or companies which might have parked them in US financial institutions and prohibits any financial or commercial transactions between American individuals and Myanmar firms named in the sanctions order. The persons named are also barred from entering the US .

The latest set of sanctions specifically target Tay Za's Htoo Trading Company Limited, also known as the Htoo Group of Companies. Tay Za was described by the US Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) as "an arms dealer and financial henchman of Burma's [Myanmar’s] repressive regime". In announcing the latest sanctions, White House press secretary Dana Perino said on February 4 that "the actions of [junta leader] Than Shwe and his associates remain unacceptable to all those who value freedom."

Tay Za, his wife, Thida Zaw, his eldest son Pye Phyo Za and five of his companies were previously named in the US sanction order of October 18, 2007. The new sanctions add Tay Za partners Aung Thet Mann, Thiha and U Kyaw Thein, as well as the Htoo Group of Companies, which includes Ayer Shwe Wah Company Ltd, Myanmar Avia Export Company Ltd and Pavo Aircraft Leasing Company Ltd, to the list.

Aung That Mann, the son of General Thura Shwe Mann who is the Joint Chief of Staff of the Myanmar armed forces and the third-ranking member of the SPDC, is also a director of Ayer Shwe Wah Co Ltd and Htoo Trading Company Ltd. Thiha, meanwhile, is Tay Za's brother and business partner, as well as a director of the Htoo Group of Companies and Htoo Trading Co Ltd.

U Kyaw Thein is a Singapore resident and known to manage Tay Za's business offices there. He currently serves as a director for Air Bagan Holdings Company Ltd, Htoo Wood Products Company Ltd, Pavo Aircraft Leasing Co Ltd and Pavo Trading Co Ltd. Also named in the new sanctions order were Khin Lay Thet, wife of General Thura Shwe Mann, Myint Myint Ko, wife of Construction Minister Mon Saw Tun, Tin Lin Myint, wife of Lieutenant General Ye Myint, the head of Military Affairs Security, and Myint Myint Soe, wife of Foreign Minister Nyan Win.

Junta's helping hand
Tay Za and his business empire have long been in the US's sights, due to the tycoon's extraordinary wealth and perceived influence with Myanmar's ruling Senior General Than Shwe and General Thura Shwe Mann, as well as other high-ranking members of the military regime. Born in 1964, the 43-year-old Tay Za originally aimed at a career in the military, for which he attended the Defense Services Academy .

He dropped out before completing his studies in 1987 to elope with his girlfriend, Thida Zaw, and subsequently took over her family's rice milling business. He eventually set up his own company in 1990 to export timber with an initial capital investment of US$333,333. By cultivating connections with senior generals and government officials, some of whom he met during his time at the academy, Tay Za gained logging rights to vast swathes of virgin hardwood forest, including areas of the Karen State, Pegu Division and Tenasserim Division which previously were under the control of the rebel Karen National Union (KNU).

According to opposition groups, Tay Za reportedly maintains most of his wealth in Singapore bank accounts. He is known to own several luxury apartments in the city-state, where his sons, Pye Phyo Za and Htet Tay Za, both live and attend elite private schools. Htet Tay Za attends the United World College of South East Asia, one of Singapore's most expensive.

Apart from expensive tastes, Tay Za is also possessed by keen business acumen. The businessman has greatly diversified his business empire since his initial investment in timber exports. Through the Htoo Trading Company Ltd, his first company and the group's flagship, his business interests now encompass property development, construction, palm oil production, arms dealing and aviation.

He is also now bidding to move into telecommunications and banking. Htoo Trading is currently Myanmar's fifth largest exporter, with official earnings of US$65.1 million in the 2006-2007 fiscal year. The Ministry of Commerce's website lists the company as the second largest in export earnings of the top 20 import-export companies in Myanmar in 2006-2007.

Htoo Trading was one of two main companies granted contracts for the construction of Naypyidaw, the new capital city where in late 2005 the junta abruptly moved all government offices from the old capital of Yangon. Another controversial Htoo Trading construction project was the 60-meter-high tower and nearby 150-room hotel in Bagan, the site of a famous temple complex and renowned international tourist attraction. The tower came under harsh international criticism by UNESCO and others for damaging the aesthetics of the site.

The company's timber business has also been criticized for causing the large-scale destruction of Myanmar's forests. A 2002 report by environmental watchdog Global Witness stated that the Htoo Trading Company's logging operations were largely responsible for much of the environmental degradation in the country. The company has also been known to provide heavy machinery to smaller logging operations, which in turn sell their logs to Htoo Trading for exports. (The company also has one of the few government-granted export licenses for raw timber.)

Since 2006, Htoo Trading has become increasingly involved in jade mining in the Hpakant area of the northern Kachin State. The move has been done on the quiet with the company gaining mining blocks through cooperative agreements with other smaller mining companies. In a move similar to his logging business deals, Htoo Trading provides the smaller operators with heavy machinery in exchange for stones. In what may be designed to show a degree of corporate social responsibility, according to the Kachin News Agency, Tay Za has provided each family displaced by the mining operation one million kyat (US$755) in compensation.

More recently, Htoo Trading has negotiated a concession from Alcatel Shanghai Bell to cooperate on projects in the new Yadanabon cyber-city, currently under construction in the vicinity of the new capital. The company has submitted a proposal to acquire four acres of land for GSM telecom services and recently submitted a proposal with Russia's CBOSS to acquire an "incubation center for prepaid software", also in Yadanabon.

The company was recently granted a license to import fuel directly as a part of the SPDC's efforts to privatize the fuel industry. In pursuit of that plan, the junta rolled back fuel subsidies last August, which set in motion the mass anti-government protests the junta cracked down on with brutal force.

Another of Tay Za's business concession gems is Air Bagan, Myanmar's first privately invested airline and currently the country's third largest after Air Mandalay and Yangon Airways. The budget airline initially flew only domestically; it added international flights in 2007, first in May to Bangkok, then in September to Singapore. Since then it has added routes to China, Cambodia, and South Korea and has announced interest in establishing routes to Osaka, Dhaka and Chennai.

Tay Za has several businesses in Singapore. Htoo Wood Products sells furniture and other wood products. Pavo Trading is involved in the selling of wholesale cut timber and plywood products and is involved in the frozen seafood business, which one business listing site claims has annual sales in the US$10 million to US$50 million range and is seeking distributors in China.

In Myanmar, Tay Za's other companies include Htoo Transportation Services, which specializes in heavy duty land and marine transport, and he has built the high-class Myanmar Shopping Center in Yangon, which sells top international brands to Myanmar's military elite. Together with a French businessman, Tay Za opened the Le Moliere French restaurant in Yangon in October 2004.

Controversial dealings
Tay Za has over the years endeavored to put a friendly face on many of his business activities. He has claimed publicly that his companies have over the past decade donated US$6 million to various social causes, including outlays for schools, hospitals and pagodas. Funds have also gone to the sponsorship of athletics and sports competitions and to scholarships for students to study overseas. Air Bagan reportedly puts aside US$1 from each international ticket and 500 kyat from each domestic ticket to fund future social projects.

On the other hand, several of his businesses have also propped the military government which continues to enrich itself at the population's expense. In particular his Yangon-based Myanmar Avia Export Company Ltd has come under scrutiny and criticism. Tay Za apparently began the company in 1993 in order to supply spare parts to the military for their aircraft. The US Treasury, along with many independent Myanmar analysts, claim that Tay Za has since used the company to buy aircraft and helicopters for the Myanmar Armed Forces.

Through Myanmar Avia Export Co Ltd, Tay Za is Myanmar's representative for Russia's major state-owned military aircraft manufacturer MAPO, of which MiG is a subsidiary, and for Russian helicopter company Rostvertol, which in 2006 merged with Mil and Kamov to become Oboronprom Corporation. Opposition groups and military analysts say Tay Za’s position at Avia Export made him instrumental in the military's purchase in 2001 of 10 MiG 29 jet fighters valued at US$130 million. Tay Za was also included in a delegation headed by SPDC number two and head of the army, General Maung Aye, when he visited Russia to reportedly discuss arms purchases in 2006. Tay Za, for his part, has consistently denied having any role as an arms broker for the SPDC.

Tay Za is known to have especially close ties to junta leader General Than Shwe and has more recently cultivated a personal relationship with SPDC No 3 and Joint Chief of Staff, General Thura Shwe Mann. General Shwe Mann is widely seen as being groomed as Than Shwe's eventual successor and he currently holds a position on the board of directors of Htoo Trading, as does his son, Aung Thet Mann. Aung Thet Mann's company, Ayer Shwe Wah, came under the wing of Htoo Trading in 1997 and the commercial relationship has been profitable for both parties.

Tay Za's rise to prominence, however, has not come without controversy. Many Myanmar businessmen are known to resent his close relations to senior junta members - especially Generals Than Shwe and Shwe Mann - and the exclusive business opportunities he has allegedly cornered in various sectors through those personal ties. At the same time, he also has a potentially formidable foe in General Maung Aye, the SPDC’s second-ranking official.

In 2006, Maung Aye used his position as chairman of the Trade Policy Council to instruct the Minister of Finance and Revenue to raise taxes on several businesses owned by Tay Za. A move to examine the accounts of Tay Za's companies by state auditors, however, was apparently blocked by friends in high places. Prior to this, in 2005, Tay Za's offices were searched, though no wrongdoing was uncovered. It's unclear how his businesses might be affected if Maung Aye rather than Shwe Mann takes power after the ailing Than Shwe fades from the scene.

The US hopes that by targeting Tay Za's businesses it will - by association - financially hit the SPDC. So far, the biggest impact the new sanctions imposed last October have had is on Air Bagan, which was informed at the time by its Singapore bank that it will no longer deal with the company. Although Singaporean banks are not legally obliged to support US financial sanctions, they apparently preferred not to risk their international reputation to maintain relations with Tay Za.

The banking cut-off made it difficult for the airline to purchase spare parts and pay staff, according to news reports. Those troubles were compounded by falling bookings in the wake of the September crackdown in Myanmar and on November 4 the airline was forced to cancel its Singapore flights. Singapore Airlines, which had provided engineers to the airline, recalled them in November.

Tay Za, at the time condemned the sanctions as "wrongful". At a gathering for the third anniversary of Air Bagan, he claimed that they would hurt only working people and would have little effect on the government they targeted. He conceded that the sanctions had caused "myriad problems" at Air Bagan, but stated the government owned no shares in the airline. He further said Air Bagan's capital was in no way related to drug trafficking, arms sales or money laundering and went on to promise to "tackle sanctions by fair and rightful means".

Strong words, but Tay Za is on a European Union list of individuals blocked from entry or transit through the EU. His Htoo Trading was targeted by enhanced EU sanctions imposed against Myanmar in December 2007. His wife, brother and oldest son are also on the list. In addition, he and his family members are also named in a December 2007 Canadian Special Economic Measures Regulations announcement that sanctioned imports and exports from Myanmar, including investment, transfer of technical data and provisions for the freezing of assets.

Whether these will be enough to upend Myanmar's top businessman and hit the ruling junta's finances is yet to be seen. Following a June 2007 meeting between Myanmar's Minister of Transportation Major General Then Swe and top business leaders, Tay Za secured a US$10 million loan from the SPDC to buy a used freighter and a tanker to start Myanmar's first private international shipping line. He recently reportedly traveled to Pusan, South Korea, to purchase the ships. Things are even looking up again for Air Bagan, which began a new route to South Korea in December and has since announced that it will resume its cancelled Singapore route in September.

Brian McCartan is a Thailand-based freelance journalist. He may be contacted through brianpm@comcast.net.

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