BANGKOK – By seizing absolute power, Myanmar coup leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has protected his and his family’s financial interests and the military’s unscrutinized economic domination.
Min Aung Hlaing spent much of his military career as a quiet, publicity-shy officer steadily promoted to higher positions before grabbing absolute power at dawn on February 1, five months before his mandatory retirement at age 65 on July 3.
Among other goals, the military’s commander-in-chief apparently hopes he has protected himself, his family, and military colleagues from possible investigation over their extensive, lucrative financial deals and economic holdings, sources say.
“His financial interests must be considered as a motive for his coup,” the Justice for Myanmar campaign group of activists said in a statement.
“Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has ultimate authority over Myanmar’s two military conglomerates – Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC) and Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL),” the group noted.
MEC and MEHL are reportedly invested in Myanmar’s commercial port activity, container depots, jade and ruby mining, real estate, construction and other lucrative sectors.
Min Aung Hlaing’s son, Aung Pyae Sone, operates a “medical supply business, A&M Mahar, sells Food and Drug Administration clearances and brokers imports, as well as trading and marketing pharmaceuticals and medical technology,” the statement said.
“Aung Pyae Sone also owns Azura Beach Resort, which promotes itself as the ‘largest resort in Chaung Tha’,” a seaside area in the Ayeyarwady Region popular with Yangon elites.
Sky One Construction was granted permission a few years ago to “build a resort on 22.22 acres of land leased from the government… Sky One Construction is owned by Aung Pyae Sone,” it said.
“Aung Pyae Sone’s wife, Myo Yadanar Htaik is also in business, including as a director of Nyein Chan Pyae Sone Manufacturing & Trading Company with her husband.
“Min Aung Hlaing’s daughter, Khin Thiri Thet Mon, owns Seventh Sense, a media production business that makes big budget films and has exclusive contracts with Nay Toe and Wut Hmone Shwe Yi,” the statement said.
The list of the family’s holdings is long and wide. A UN report in 2019 said MEC and MEHL “are contributing to supporting the Tatmadaw’s [military’s] financial capacity.”
It said those military conglomerates display a “high risk of contributing to or being linked to, violations of human rights law and international humanitarian law.”
The coup-leader enjoys strong support from fellow officers, including those who have benefited from the military’s various business ventures.
He has also reportedly pleased the rank and file with recent procurements of expensive weaponry and equipment from China, Russia, Israel and others, deals which traditionally have allowed top generals to skim off inflated public prices.
Corruption watchdog Transparency International has consistently ranked Myanmar among the most offenders worldwide, according to its Corruption Perceptions Index.
But it is the tight control Min Aung Hlaing, his family and his military comrades enjoy that makes their financial activities especially problematic to measure without public scrutiny or accounting over their profits and transfers of ownership.
If Min Aung Hlaing had retired instead of launching his February 1 coup, he would have potentially been vulnerable to financial investigations under Aung San Suu Kyi’s new National League for Democracy (NLD)-led government, which won in a landslide against the military’s proxy party at last November’s election.
“When Suu Kyi won another election handsomely, [it] risked actual democratization – even if illiberal in nature – potentially undermining the military’s position for a long time to come,” wrote Avinash Paliwal, an author who teaches at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies.
What is even less understood is how Min Aung Hlaing and the military perceived Suu Kyi and the NLD’s growing commercial relations with China, which has vast interests in infrastructure developments in Myanmar under its Belt and Road Initiative.
It is not clear how much of those big-ticket contracts, ranging from roads, railroads and ports, were guided and controlled by the NLD and whether the military was sharing in the related contractual riches.
International pressure against Min Aung Hlaing has been building since his military’s brutal crackdown on the Rohingya minority and was expected to target him more intensely in the months ahead.
Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, is immensely popular in Myanmar despite being disgraced and stripped of many of her international awards for her past role as a pro-democracy icon in recent years over her response to the Rohingya crisis.
UN investigators have said the military should be prosecuted for “genocide” when it massacred, raped and expelled Rohingya from western Myanmar in 2016-17. More than 730,000 Rohingya fled to neighboring Muslim-majority Bangladesh, where they continue to languish in wretched refugee camps.
Suu Kyi and the military denied the genocide charges and said Myanmar’s security forces launched self-defense attacks against “terrorists.”
In 2019, the US slapped sanctions against Min Aung Hlaing and three other military leaders for their role in abuses against the Rohingya.
Those sanctions came under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act and froze any assets held by Min Aung Hlaing and three other officers in the US. American business relations with them were criminalized under the sanctions.
US President Joe Biden immediately condemned the coup and has threatened more sanctions if it is not reversed. But any new US punitive measures are not expected to eject Min Aung Hlaing and the military from power.
The military ruled consecutively for decades, starting with a 1962 coup and bolstered by a 1988 putsch, before allowing for a quasi-democratic transition that saw Suu Kyi and the NLD win elections in 2015 and 2020.
Still, the military maintained its political role through military appointees with veto power in parliament and control of the powerful home, defense and border affairs ministries.
Previous military regimes ran down the economy from one of the most prosperous in the region to its current grotesque inequality, which has been worsened by decades of international sanctions.
It’s yet to be seen how the foreign investors who entered the country under Suu Kyi’s elected government will respond. Many have already taken a reputational beating for their continued involvement in the country after the Rohingya atrocities.
Foreign investors could, if they chose, knock down some of the economic and financial pillars Min Aung Hlaing and his colleagues will need to keep the economy afloat during their emergency rule regime, which they have promised to lift after one year.
Rights group pressure is already building on foreign businesses operating in the country. “Is Your Business Funding Myanmar Military Abuses?” New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) titled a report on Wednesday. HRW had taken particular aim at Japan’s Kirin Holdings beer and drinks company for its venture in two military-linked breweries.
The company announced on Friday it was abandoning its partnership with MEHL in the Myanmar Brewery and Mandalay Brewery in response to the coup.
“The human rights, reputational, and legal risks of continuing to do business with Myanmar’s military are immense,” wrote Aruna Kashyap, a HRW senior counsel.
The military “has been accused of genocide and crimes against humanity against Rohingya Muslims, and war crimes against other ethnic minorities. And now it has overthrown a civilian government that won a massive re-election, with over 80 percent of the vote, in November 2020,” Kashyap wrote.
In Thailand, Amata temporarily halted its $1 billion industrial estate development work in Myanmar amid concerns that new sanctions could make the project taboo for international investors.
“We and our clients are concerned about a possible trade boycott by Western countries,” Amata’s Chief Marketing Officer Viboon Kromadit said on Tuesday.
Suzuki Motor, meanwhile, stopped its two car-making factories in Myanmar until the post-coup situation stabilizes. China’s growing commercial interests in Myanmar are expected to be less affected as Beijing has already effectively endorsed the coup.
Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based American foreign correspondent reporting from Asia since 1978. Excerpts from his new nonfiction book, “Rituals. Killers. Wars. & Sex. — Tibet, India, Nepal, Laos, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka & New York” are available at https://asia-correspondent.tumblr.com