Myanmar has undergone dramatic changes since the newly installed quasi-civilian government took power in 2011. President Thein Sein admitted that the country is in bad shape in every sector due to corruption, mismanagement and a decades-long civil war. He initiated limited political and economic reform by engaging with political dissidents, and opening up the economic and financial system to become realistic and competitive.
The conventional wisdom of the peoples of Myanmar is that such a reform process would create a level playing field in the economy and diminish crony capitalists, who had controlled the country's economy for more than 20 years with the help of the previous military regime, albeit gradually. Sadly, the opposite is true.
The cronies have reinvented themselves to fit in with the new playing field. Many of them are now members of parliament and leaders of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), cabinet ministers, presidential advisers and peace brokers _ some have even declared that they are now philanthropists.
After the United States, European Union (EU), Canada and Australia suspended or lifted economic and trade sanctions with the support of Aung San Suu Kyi, the wealth and business empires of the crony capitalists have been expanding greatly with the return of foreign investments to Myanmar and increased export opportunities to the international community. For foreign investors, they have no choice but to work with the cronies as they own most of the country's land, buildings, banks, factories and other economic resources as well as having government connections.
The cronies are also now favourites of Mrs Suu Kyi who said on Jan 9 this year: "If those so-called cronies render assistance for social work, we agree with them and [we welcome] their sincere contribution. Instead of spending money for useless activities, the money can be put to good use; it is a good idea."
Her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), held a fund-raising music festival for its education network on Dec 27 and 28, 2012. The event was sponsored by companies including Air Bagan and the Asia Green Development Bank (AGD), owned by Myanmar business tycoon Tay Za, and SkyNet, a cable company owned by Shwe Than Lwin Kyaw Win who is under EU sanctions. Those companies donated more than US$240,000 (7.2 million baht) for the education network of the NLD, in addition to providing the venue for the NLD's press conference. SkyNet is a business partner of Voice of America (VOA), a US Federal Agency, which is now broadcasting its TV programmes in Myanmar through SkyNet TV.
The Myanmar military has continued its offensives against the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO), the ethnic Kachin resistance group, in Kachin state. Despite the fact that this has resulted human rights abuses including sexual violence and in more than one hundred thousand refugees fleeing from and suffering great hardship in the war zone, Aung San Suu Kyi continues to profess her love for the Myanmar military.
On Jan 28, 2013, she spoke to the BBC saying that "It's genuine. I'm fond of the army. People don't like me for saying that. There are many who have criticised me for being what they call a poster girl for the army. Very flattering to be seen as a poster girl for anything at this time of life, but I think the truth is I am very fond of the army, because I always thought of it as my father's army."
She is not alone. The cronies love the army just as much. On Jan 27, 2013, AGD Bank, the same bank that sponsored the NLD's fund-raising event, proudly donated US$90,000 to soldiers from the Myanmar army under the Northern Military Command who are fighting on the front lines in Kachin state.
By taking money from the cronies, defending them from public criticism and showing love for the Myanmar military, Mrs Suu Kyi has effectively irritated ethnic populations, especially the Kachin who have suffered enormous human rights violations by the Myanmar army in their state. One of the Kachin community leaders, Khon Ja, recently said: "Her [Aung San Suu Kyi's] focus is collecting awards and becoming president, rather than the suffering of our people."
Mrs Suu Kyi's supportive view and her friendliness toward the cronies are giving them great credibility. On Jan 24 this year, the US Department of Treasury removed U Kyaw Thein, a close business associate of Tay Za, from its targeted sanctions list (Specially Designated Nationals). When the Treasury announced its sanctions on Tay Zay and his financial network back in February 2008, U Kyaw Thein, who is a permanent resident of Singapore and director of Tay Za's companies in Singapore, was said to be the key financial front man of Tay Za. While there are so many cronies out there in Myanmar exploiting the lives of ordinary citizens and monopolising the country's economy, we may see more and more cronies being freed from US sanctions. No one else should come off the sanctions list since none of the benchmarks outlined by President Obama have been met and the situation has worsened since his visit to Myanmar.
Aung Din is a former political prisoner in Myanmar and former executive director of the Washington DC-based US Campaign for Myanmar. He now lives in the United States.
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Writer: Aung Din