Revealed: the craven corruption behind the Myanmar coup
published : 8 Sep 2021 at 17:11
BANGKOK/LONDON: A week after the Burmese military seized power, a Twitter account that had lain dormant for nearly a decade flickered back into life.
The Twitter user mocked anti-coup protesters, hundreds of whom have been killed in a crackdown by security forces since the Feb 1 coup. After a police truck fired high-pressure water cannons on demonstrators in the capital city of Naypyidaw on Feb 8, he made a trolling reference to the nation's traditional April new year celebration: "Water festival come earlier for them lol."
A few weeks later, the user wrote "#fuckthereds," making a dismissive reference to the political party of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Prize-winning civilian leader who had been overthrown and arrested in the coup.
A review of an archived version of the account, which has since been shut down, revealed the username was a pseudonym belonging to Ivan Htet, the 33-year-old son of a leading figure in the coup: the chief of the air force, Maung Maung Kyaw.
But Ivan Htet hasn't just been an enthusiastic supporter on social media of the Tatmadaw, the name for the Burmese military, which has dominated political life since independence in 1948 for Myanmar, then called Burma. He is also trying to cash in, helping equip the military, along with his wife Lin Lett Thiri, who co-founded a private firm to supply Myanmar's armed forces, Reuters has found.
Corporate filings and a military procurement document reviewed by Reuters, as well as interviews with friends and associates of the family and with five defence contractors, show that the couple are part of a young generation of military families with business interests across the economy.
Besides his son and daughter-in-law, the air force chief's nephew and niece have also prospered: They own a company that supplies the country's aviation sector, corporate filings and media interviews show. Two defence contractors, a business associate and a former Myanmar airline executive told Reuters that the nephew was also involved in deals to supply the armed forces.
FILE PHOTO: Military personnel participate in a parade on Armed Forces Day in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, March 27, 2021. (Reuters photo)
Maung Maung Kyaw, 57, was promoted to head the air force in 2018 and has presided over a modernisation program, with hundreds of millions of dollars spent on upgrading aircraft used to support a military that for decades has been accused of human rights abuses. These included mass killings in 2017 of the Rohingya Muslim minority with "genocidal intent," according to United Nations investigators. The military has denied this, saying it was waging a legitimate campaign against militants who attacked police.
Since the coup and the ensuing protests, in which the local human rights group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners says more than 1,000 people have been killed, the air force has been used to ferry troops around the country to quell opposition and, according to eyewitnesses, for bombing raids against rebel groups that have also killed civilians.
Photos and postings on social media – showing parties at expensive venues in Singapore and trips to Bangkok, London and Santorini – show family members of the air force chief have enjoyed a lifestyle that is out of reach for the vast majority of Burmese.
With a privileged upbringing, Ivan Htet was married in December 2018 in the presence, photos show, of his father and the country's top general and now coup leader, Min Aung Hlaing. Corporate records show that three months later, Ivan's new wife, a British-trained architect, set up Alliance Engineering Services Co, Ltd, which has a mission to modernise the defence and security industry, according to its website.
Two defence contractors and a business associate interviewed by Reuters said the firm is led by Ivan Htet himself. He discussed deals with them, some of which were completed, those sources said. These ranged from spare parts for drones to the purchase of sonar and radar equipment.
Reuters has reviewed a letter sent in 2020 from Alliance Engineering Services to suppliers requesting quotes for spare parts for Israeli-made surveillance drones. The drones have been used by the military against ethnic armed groups, according to photographs from one of the groups. The document was circulated by Ivan Htet, a person with knowledge of the matter said. Reuters was unable to determine if any deal went through or how much it was worth.
Linn Htet, 33, and his sister, Mon Yee, 31, the Singapore-based nephew and niece of the air force chief, own a family business offering consulting, spare parts, leasing and maintenance services to the aviation sector in Myanmar and other markets. Linn Htet is also a director of state-owned Myanmar National Airlines, and has represented major US aviation brands like Bell and Cessna in the country, according to local media reports in Myanmar and an archived version of the website for a company he has represented.
For the military, Linn Htet also supplies spare parts for a range of aircraft, according to one of the defence contractors and the business associate interviewed by Reuters.
All of the contractors spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals by the military regime.
But one former Myanmar airline executive described dealing with the nephew.
Gary Villiard, former chief executive of private Burmese airline Air Mandalay, said he did business with Linn Htet and that the air force chief's nephew "didn't try to hide" that he was involved in all aspects of Myanmar's aviation industry, whether civilian or military. Air force purchases for tyres, engine overhauls and parts, wheels and brakes went through him, Villiard said.
Reuters sent detailed questions to Myanmar's air force chief and his family members about their business dealings. Ivan Htet and his wife didn't respond. Within two days of the questions being sent, Ivan Htet's Twitter account was shut down. A person who answered a call to a number for Ivan Htet ended the call when the reporter started explaining the reason for contacting him.
Maung Maung Kyaw didn't respond to questions sent to the military.
The family business owned by the nephew and niece, LTR, said in an email it had "never been involved in arms trade nor supplied aircraft parts nor any goods to the Myanmar military." The nephew, Linn Htet, did not respond to questions. His sister Mon Yee, contacted by phone, said she was mostly not involved in the company's Myanmar dealings and didn't believe her family had "special advantages".
Michael Maynard, spokesperson for NYSE-listed Textron Inc, which owns Bell, Beechcraft and Cessna brands, did not respond to specific questions about the company's relationship to Linn Htet and his family. Maynard said the company would not discuss intermediaries.
A family affair
The Burmese military has long controlled large swathes of the economy, in particular extractive industries like oil, gas, copper and jade. Under successive army leaders, the Tatmadaw has established a web of commercial interests outside civilian control and directed contracts to a network of private sector "crony companies", a United Nations fact-finding mission on Myanmar's military said in a 2019 report.
A review of data from OpenCorporates, confirmed by local company records, shows the extent to which the families of coup leaders are involved in different sectors of the economy. Reuters found 27 companies owned or directed by children of four military members of the junta, called the State Administration Council, and their spouses. The businesses ranged from construction to pharmaceuticals to entertainment.
"Everyone understands that the generals are only protecting their own interests, properties and wealth," Kyaw Zwar Minn, the former ambassador to the United Kingdom, who said he was a parachutist in the military, told Reuters in an interview. He was removed from office after he called for the release of Suu Kyi following her Feb 1 arrest. He remains in the UK.
The children of Min Aung Hlaing, the current commander in chief, have obtained favourable deals from the government. Min Aung Hlaing didn't respond to questions sent to the military.
A diminutive, bespectacled man in his mid-sixties, Min Aung Hlaing rose from relative obscurity by building his career on successive military campaigns in ethnic areas during which human rights groups said there were instances of villagers being gang-raped and killed by soldiers. After his appointment as head of the army, he rejected allegations that the military had committed atrocities against ethnic minorities.
He was hand-picked in 2011 to succeed the former junta leader, Than Shwe, ahead of senior rivals. In 2017, he oversaw the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya from Myanmar.
In a speech last year, he addressed the economic disparities in the country, saying there was a need to narrow the gap between "poor and wealthy" in Myanmar.
Earlier this year, in the wake of the coup, his children were blacklisted by the United States, which highlighted their business interests. According to the US Treasury, his son Aung Pyae Sone paid less than 1% of the market rate to lease land for a new restaurant in 2013. Min Aung Hlaing's daughter, Khin Thiri Thet Mon, part-owned a company that secured a deal to supply mobile towers to a military-controlled telecoms firm, according to leaked Myanmar Investment Commission records seen by Reuters. The deal was previously reported by Deutsche Welle.
Aung Pyae Sone and Khin Thiri Thet Mon did not respond to questions from Reuters.
A spokesperson for the military government ruling Myanmar also did not respond to questions for this story.
The air force chief Maung Maung Kyaw was born in July 1964 into an elite military family. His father was Kyaw Htin, who rose through the ranks from fighting as a junior soldier to become commander in chief of the Tatmadaw in 1976 under the military dictator Ne Win.
Maung Maung Kyaw followed his father into the military, training as a fighter pilot, said the former ambassador to the UK, Kyaw Zwar Minn, who knew the family. He said he was aided in promotion by his "big army background".
After he became air force chief, he travelled to Moscow in 2018 where he co-piloted a Sukhoi warplane, Russian state news agency TASS reported. The agency said Myanmar planned to buy six of the aircraft.
Maung Maung Kyaw raised his children in an exclusive neighbourhood in Yangon. Former schoolmates of Ivan Htet said he was brought up with his younger brother in the Golden Valley, a leafy neighbourhood where the city's wealthy live in neoclassical villas guarded with gates and razor wire fences and drive luxury cars along pot-holed roads.
A chauffeur ferried the pair to an elite school and they attended evening English classes and swam at a private club, one of the schoolmates said. After school in Myanmar, Ivan Htet moved to study in a Singapore college, where a friend said he lived in a smart condominium.
He spent time in Singapore with his cousins, Linn Htet and Mon Yee, the children of Maung Maung Kyaw's older sister, Thida Myint. Together with her husband, Thida Myint owned an aviation supply business called LTR. The company has operations in Myanmar and Singapore. Thida Myint didn't respond to a request for comment.
Linn Htet became a director of LTR's Singapore arm in 2012, and so did Mon Yee a couple of years later, corporate records show. In 2014, a US-based aviation magazine reported that Linn Htet and the family firm played a crucial role in the sale of the first new US-manufactured planes to Myanmar since 1962: two Cessna turboprops to Myanmar National Airlines, then called Myanmar Airways.
Myanmar National Airlines didn't respond to a request for comment.
As young adults, the cousins lived a lavish lifestyle. Instagram posts on Mon Yee's account show one night out in Paris in 2013, where she partied with friends alongside a bucket of champagne, which an undated, online version of the club's drinks menu listed at 750 euros a bottle.
The Instagram photos show Ivan Htet socialising with his two cousins - from partying in Bangkok in 2018, to posing the next year in ballgowns and suits with vintage cars at a grand colonial-era hotel in Pyin Oo Lwin, a town outside Mandalay where the headquarters of the military academy is based.
Mon Yee told Reuters her lifestyle depicted on Instagram did not have "anything to do with any military dealings or anything like that".
Ivan Htet had meanwhile studied construction project management, before returning to Yangon in 2012 where he worked for a leading real estate tycoon. He met his future wife, Lin Lett Thiri, while working on a project to build luxury apartments on the outskirts of Yangon, two friends of the couple said. She is an architecture graduate of Bath University, England, according to multiple online profiles.
Together the couple formed a series of hospitality, events and architecture companies, corporate records show. One, registered in April 2020, was co-owned with a business associate of top commander Min Aung Hlaing's son, Aung Pyae Sone, the records reveal.
Kyaw Zwar Minn, the ex-UK ambassador, said there was a pattern of well-connected children of the military getting educated abroad and then returning to set up businesses and using their privileged contacts to succeed. "Because of that connection, they need only education. They are already rich," he said.
By 2017, Ivan and his wife had gained a public profile, organising a "lighting festival", a display of sculptures made with millions of LEDs, in Yangon in March that year that was attended by local politicians.
Five months later, the army launched its crackdown on the Rohingya, driving hundreds of thousands into neighbouring Bangladesh. Eyewitness accounts emerged of murder, rape and torture by the military, as well as widescale burning of Rohingya homes. The military denied the allegations. But in the first verified account of the atrocities, Reuters revealed in early 2018 that troops had massacred 10 Rohingya men and dumped their bodies in a shallow grave.
In November 2017, as Rohingya continued to flee to Bangladesh, Ivan Htet hosted another one of his company's lighting displays in the city of Pathein, according to photos posted to the event's Facebook page.
In January 2018, Maung Maung Kyaw was made head of the air force. A few months later, his son's company went on to host another lighting festival, this time to celebrate Armed Forces Day. In December that year, Ivan Htet and his wife married in a palatial ballroom in a military compound in Yangon. Photos of the wedding seen by Reuters show commander in chief Min Aung Hlaing posing with the couple.
In 2019, Ivan Htet became an adviser to a new political party, the People's Pioneer Party, formed by supporters of the military and disaffected members of Suu Kyi's party to compete in the 2020 election, a friend of Ivan said. Two party activists confirmed his involvement with the party but said they did not know what specific role he played. The party didn't fare well in the election - it failed to win a single seat.
Meanwhile, Ivan's wife Lin Lett Thiri had co-founded the defence and security firm Alliance Engineering Services, with a 60% stake. She stepped down in September 2019, a few months after the company was created, and no longer owns shares.
The company was managed day to day by Win Min Hein, according to company records and interviews with one of the contractors and the business associate. Win Min Hein went to the same school in Singapore as Ivan Htet, according to his LinkedIn profile. He did not reply to a request for comment.
The air force budget for spending on foreign equipment was $360 million in fiscal year 2019, the largest of any branch, and more than double that of the Navy, official spending records reviewed by Reuters show. Min Aung Hlaing had made bolstering the air force a priority, according to state media.
A large portion of air force spending goes towards not just buying new aircraft but kitting out existing models with fresh components, the spending records show. In fiscal year 2020, about one third of the air force's $377 million budget for foreign purchases went toward spare parts and repairs, according to a Reuters analysis of the spending records. Military contractors said this gives rise to a lucrative trade in aircraft spare parts and maintenance.
Illustrated with pictures of Russian fighter jets, among others, the website of Alliance Engineering Services said its mission was "to lead the emerging new era of defense and security industry in Myanmar" and that it specialised in maintenance and acquiring critical components for aircraft. In 2019 and 2021, it was on a list of exhibitors at the MAKS international air show in Moscow, where Russian aircraft manufacturers showcase products and court foreign clients.
The November 2020 Alliance Engineering document seen by Reuters showed the firm was seeking quotations for spare parts for Skylark military drones made by Israeli manufacturer Elbit Systems. The Tatmadaw increasingly uses drones in its wars with ethnic armed groups, including in Rakhine state, where rebels photographed a crashed Skylark in 2020.
Asked if it had supplied the Skylark or spares to Myanmar, Elbit Systems told Reuters the company "has no activities in that country and has not provided any product or service to this country since 2015."
The Singapore cousins
In Singapore, Ivan's cousin Linn Htet had become a central figure in supplying Myanmar's aviation industry, records and media reports show. Besides being a co-owner of LTR, Linn Htet was also the Myanmar head of another Singapore company, Asian Aviation Resources, which according to its website is an authorised sales representative for Textron Aviation.
An executive at Asian Aviation Resources declined to comment on Linn Htet's involvement in the company. After Reuters contacted the firm, Linn Htet's profile was removed from its website.
Maynard, the Textron spokesperson, said the company "cannot disclose confidential information related to our intermediaries and other persons".
Between 2014 and 2019, Linn Htet was quoted by media outlets saying the family firm was working to supply planes and helicopters to Myanmar. As he promoted the helicopter sales, Linn Htet indicated in 2016 that ongoing US and EU sanctions were not an issue. Myanmar's government and private companies could "easily buy Bell helicopters from Singapore without any problems with sanctions," he told the Myanmar Times. At the time, foreign companies were still concerned about sanctions even though many had been lifted.
According to Villiard, the aviation executive, and two of the contractors, Linn Htet was also getting involved in military supplies. One of the contractors and the business associate said he worked with a Myanmar military supplier called Aero Sofi. Aero Sofi attempted a US$38.6 million purchase for the air force of two Airbus C295 military transport planes from the Jordanian air force in 2020.
Aero Sofi's involvement in that deal was previously reported by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project based on leaked military budget documents, which have also been reviewed by Reuters. The news agency could not determine if the deal was completed.
While Linn Htet's name doesn't appear in corporate filings for Aero Sofi, the business and his family firm do have close documented ties. The deputy operations manager of LTR, Hein Htut Win, for instance, is a co-founder and one-third shareholder of Aero Sofi, corporate records show.
Contacted by phone, Hein Htut Win said he was no longer working at Aero Sofi and declined to answer further questions. Aero Sofi did not respond to requests for comment.
Corporate records show Mon Yee also had ties to executives at companies supplying the Myanmar military. She owns a trading business in Singapore with Thiha Myo Nyunt, an official of Aero Sofi, and Ye Aung Aung Tin, the managing director and part owner of King Royal Technologies, a company that was sanctioned in July by the US Treasury for supplying satellite communications to the Tatmadaw.
The trading business, Maxi Road Trading, has no public profile and Mon Yee didn't answer questions about the company. Thiha Myo Nyunt said Aero Sofi and Maxi Road Trading were no longer operating. In July, Maxi Road Trading notified Singapore's corporate registry that it had ceased trading a few months earlier. King Royal did not respond to questions; Ye Aung Aung Tin could not be reached for comment.
Maynard said Textron had sold a total of five planes directly to Myanmar in the last 30 years and had "ceased direct part sales" to the country prior to the coup.
Since the coup, families of the junta leaders have made efforts to hide their online profiles.
The website of the company founded by Ivan Htet's wife, Alliance Engineering Services, has been replaced with a note saying it is "under construction".
As the family of Maung Maung Kyaw has lowered its profile, the air force he runs has played a key role in cementing the power of the military government, including in Myanmar's borderlands. There, ethnic armed groups have been fighting decades-long battles for greater independence from the majority ethnic-Bamar heartland. Aung San Suu Kyi's government was trying to broker a peace deal. But since the coup, conflicts which had died down have erupted anew, as some groups have harboured civilian protesters who have found common cause with them in fighting the military.
In Karen state, for instance, the Karen National Union, one of the country's armed groups, has expressed solidarity with protesters. In late March, air strikes in Karen by fighter jets killed several people, including a five-year-old boy, according to the relief group Free Burma Rangers. A 12-year-old girl was hit in the face by shrapnel from the same attack but survived. Thousands of people fled into the jungle and across the border into Thailand.
In Singapore, a few weeks later, Linn Htet and Mon Yee dined with three other men at Bar-A-Thym, a French restaurant in Singapore, according to an April 15 Instagram post, which Mon Yee marked with a sticker showing a figure balancing the words "work" and "life".
One of the men was Eric Ng, a regional sales manager for Bell Helicopters. He did not respond to questions from Reuters about what work he was doing, if any, with the family.
Ivan Htet, meanwhile, was on May 17 added to a list of people sanctioned by the United States, including leaders of the military government and others close to the regime. A US Treasury spokesperson declined to comment on Ivan Htet's case, but said the children of generals had been blacklisted "based on these family members owning assets or facilitating transactions that benefit the regime, as well as based on family members being connected to malign actors responsible for the coup."
At home, Ivan Htet has been one of the social media targets of anti-coup protesters, who have launched a campaign to name and shame the family members of Myanmar's generals and called for their friends to shun them.
A logo on Ivan Htet's now locked Facebook profile says he is the victim of a bullying campaign.