Burma/Myanmar: Military dictatorship and democracy between BRI and economic and power interests

Burma/Myanmar: Military dictatorship and democracy between BRI and economic and power interests

In the following a selected review of Asian voices about the military coup in Myanmar/Burma. The NGO Justice for Myanmar claims that the cause for the military coup was the landslide election victory by  Aung San Suiky´s NLD which made the generals panic that they could lose their power and economic empire:

“Who profits from a coup? The power and greed of Senior General Min Aung Hlaing

January 30, 2021

A show of force from the Myanmar military over the past few days, led by its Commander-in-Chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, has caused a political crisis that threatens the “disciplined” democracy the military themselves engineered. The military’s talk of a coup, coupled with the sudden parade of tanks patrolling major cities, has caused public fear and anxiety, at a time when the people are grappling with a wave of Covid-19 and economic crisis.

Echoing the persistent claims by the Myanmar military’s proxy party Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) that the November 2020 general elections was marred by fraud, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing is raising questions of election irregularities and talking about upholding the military-drafted Constitution. The Constitution ensures the military’s role in politics with a guaranteed 25% of the seats in parliament, autonomy from civilian oversight and control of ministries of home affairs, border affairs and defence. Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s political power and economic interests are at stake as his retirement date fast approaches.

As June 2021 nears, when Senior General Min Aung Hlaing is required to transfer power to a new Commander-in-Chief, his financial interests must be considered as a motive for his coup threat. Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and his family have a lot to lose after having amassed personal wealth through the abuse of his public position as head of the military.  

Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s role in military business

Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has ultimate authority over Myanmar’s two military conglomerates, Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC) and Myanma Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL). He is the head of the Patron Group of MEHL and one of the biggest shareholders, overseeing business interests throughout Myanmar. These businesses were built through the systemic corruption of military dictatorship and the theft of public assets, which expanded under Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s leadership.

Businesses Senior General Min Aung Hlaing oversees include strategic assets outsourced to cronies and notorious international businesses through corrupt deals that he has presided over. For instance, in 2013, MEHL took control of Bo Aung Kyaw Port, transferred from Myanma Port Authority, a civilian government agency headed by a former military official and MEHL director. In 2016, the port was leased to crony conglomerate KT Group under a 50-year build-operate-transfer deal earning MEHL US$3 million per year, reviewable every 5 years, according to reporting from Myanmar Now. Similarly, MEC controls a swath of riverside land in Ahlone Township, which it has leased to Asia World and Adani Ports and SEZ for the construction and operation of private ports.

In the mining sector, under Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s leadership, MEHL controls the largest number of jade and ruby licences in lucrative sites, some of which it has leased to crony conglomerate KBZ’s mining subsidiaries, disclosed in reporting to the Myanmar Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. In the Khamti region, MEHL provides licences to KBZ’s jade subsidiary, through which 24,230 kg of jade was extracted in the 2015-16 fiscal year alone, paying minimal royalties to the government.

Ever Flow River Group has partnered with MEHL for the Hlaing Dry Port and Inland Container Depot on land controlled by MEHL. While EFR is contributing 100% of the investment for the strategic project, MEHL holds a 51% stake, with Senior General Min Aung Hlaing personally profiting.  

Wanbao Mining and Myanmar Yang Tse, subsidiaries of Chinese arms manufacturer NORINCO, operate infamous copper mines in Sagaing, which have caused environmental destruction and immense suffering for local communities. According to data disclosed by MEHL, the total investment of the Sabae Taung & Kyay Sin Taung mine is US$398.56 million, with 100% of the capital provided by Yang Tse. In Letpadaung, 100% of the mine’s US$997 million investment is provided by Wanbao. Wanbao Mining and Myanmar Yang Tse are responsible for the vast majority of the workforce. Senior General Min Aung Hlaing had agreed to a profit share for MEHL of 51% for both mines, despite MEHL not investing capital (MEHL’s profit share was later reduced after community outrage, increasing the state’s share).  

These corrupt deals net significant profits to Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and cement his relationship with cronies, who are consequently beholden to him, in a system that continues to concentrate wealth within a tightly knit group of top generals and their associates. These relationships are systemically corrupt, enabling Senior General Min Aung Hlaing to extract rent from the military’s access to state assets, licences and public procurement.

Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s family businesses

Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s has also abused his power to benefit his family, who have profited from their access to state resources and the military’s total impunity.

Aung Pyae Sone, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s son, operates a number of known businesses. His 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.

In 2019, Aung Pyae Sone came under public scrutiny for his ownership of Yangon Restaurant and Yangon Gallery in People’s Park, adjacent to Shwedagon Pagoda. He was awarded an artificially low land lease from the Yangon Regional government and serves alcohol in breach of a Yangon City Development Committee prohibition.

Aung Pyae Sone also owns Azura Beach Resort, which promotes itself as the “largest resort in Chaung Tha”. Shortly after the NLD’s victory in the 2015, the Myanmar Investment Commission, under the USDP-led government, granted a permit to Sky One Construction to build a resort on 22.22 acres of land leased from the government, in a systemic conflict of interest. Sky One Construction is owned by Aung Pyae Sone.

In 2016, Winning Star, a company owned by Aung Pyae Sone’s business partner in Sky One Construction, which formerly operated out of the same address, won a 250-million-kyat contract from the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism to develop the Mrauk-U Hotel. Mrauk-U is the ancient capital of Arakan State, where there has been intense fighting over the last year between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army.  

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. Until recently, she was a director of Apower, a subsidiary of crony company Aung Myin Thu Group, which has a real estate development in Mingaladon Township of Yangon.

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. Nay Toe features prominently in marketing for Mytel, the mobile operator that Senior General Min Aung Hlaing established with MEC, being awarded the government’s share in the venture. Khin Thiri Thet Mon also owns Everfit, a chain of luxury gyms.

These family business interests are likely the tip of the iceberg. As long as the military remains outside of democratic oversight and Senior General Min Aung Hlaing can continue to abuse his power for personal gain, it is not possible to gauge the family’s true wealth and assets.

Who benefits from a coup?

While Senior General Min Aung Hlaing threatens a coup to supposedly uphold the integrity of Myanmar’s electoral process, it is important to examine his economic interests, as head of the military’s economic conglomerates and the business interests of his family. His economic activities have been the subject of growing domestic and international criticism, causing reputational risk for the military’s international business partners like Kirin Holdings and Pan-Pacific.

Since 2019, scrutiny of Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and the Myanmar military’s economic interests has increased, after the UN Fact-Finding Mission published a report that implicated military-owned businesses in genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Furthermore, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing is at the centre of international efforts for accountability for the crime of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The people of Myanmar and the rank-and-file of the military continue to suffer from the rampant corruption and systemic conflict of interest under Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s leadership. If democratisation in Myanmar progresses and there is accountability for his criminal conduct, he and his family stand to lose their revenue streams.

Public assets stolen by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and his family must be returned to the people. Without action from a democratically elected government, there is a high risk that Senior General Min Aung Hlaing will try to hang onto power as Commander-in-Chief and use it to continue to amass wealth through military conglomerates and his family businesses, while the majority of the people of Myanmar and the rank-and-file of the military live in poverty.

Threatening a coup does not benefit the people of Myanmar or the rank-and-file soldiers Senior General Min Aung Hlaing is tasked to lead. Moreover, attempting to do so at the end of his term as head of the military, which he has used to enrich himself and his family, indicates a financial motive, in addition to his desire hold onto political power. Who really benefits from a coup?


The Hongkong opposition newspaper The Apple Daily claims that Myanmar was the important test for the Biden administration to counter China’s expansive geopolitical goals as Myanmar was one of the 4 most important strategic choke points and hubs for the Belt and Road Initiative. China aimed to break through the US encirclement by using Myanmar as an in- and outlet.

“Sino-US wrestling ring moved to Myanmar?Mr. Tregunter

Published (HKT): 2021.02.10 09:41

Let’s roll out the map and pay heed to 4 points: Iran, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Myanmar. They are key to the “Road” in the One Belt One Road initiative. I have mentioned a lot of times that with the Island Chain devised for stemming Japan, the Soviet Union, China and North Korea from expanding eastwardly in the old days, if China wants to break out of the encirclement, it has to go westwardly or southwardly. One Belt is on the west side of China; One Road is on the south side of China.

80% of the petroleum transported to China from the Middle East is shipped through the Strait of Malacca, which means the waterway is enclosed by US’s Island Chain. Having grasped this point, one is able to understand what the 4 points mentioned above are meant for. A crude carrier is piloted out of the Strait of Hormuz from Iran, with Gwadar Port in Pakistan on its side. From there, the crude oil can be delivered to Xinjiang by land route. If it keeps going ahead by sea, Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka will provide the carrier with supplies before it is on its way to Myanmar. Coincidentally, Sri Lanka has ceded Hambantota Port to China for 99 years to write off a debt. After arriving at Kyaukpyu Port in Myanmar, the crude oil will be channeled through Sino-Myanmar petroleum pipeline to Guizhou.

So, Iran, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Myanmar are extraordinarily important to China. If the strategic layout gets in shape, the amount of crude oil transported through the Strait of Malacca will be significantly reduced. Foreign media reported that the Chinese Communist Party has adopted a stance on the coup in Myanmar. With China exercising its veto, a condemnation of Myanmar’s coup was rejected in the United Nations Security Council. The official statement is of course something about not interfering in internal affairs of other countries, but what does it imply if one turns a blind eye to such an important incident? Sandwiched between China and the US, Aung San Suu Kyi made an attempt not to offend either of them. However, the situation has suggested that there is no room for double-dipping at all.

In another region, while Israel has warned America against getting back to the agreement on the Iranian nuclear program, Iran has recently urged the US to swiftly return back to the agreement. So, the crux of the Myanmar issue lies in the Biden administration. Although he has uttered a few words, inaction is the same as tacitly consenting. If the US sternly condemns Myanmar’s military, takes no action against it, returns to the agreement on the Iranian nuclear program, and lifts the sanctions off Iran, it has no difference from removing its strategy.

Myanmar’s military proclaimed that everything had been done for investigating the alleged rigging. If those condemning Myanmar’s military are to let the armed forces step in for rigging in the future, it will amount to giving rivals grounds for making a rebuttal. However, acquiescing in what Myanmar’s military did is equivalent to taking up the same stance as the CCP does. That said, all the aforementioned are not the key. What is crucial is what we can see from the way the Biden administration handles the Myanmar issue.

Myanmar is only one of the breaches the CCP has been looking for in order to break away from the encirclement by the West. Irrespective of how the US is going to cope with it, as long as it authentically deals with it, Myanmar will be the first Sino-US wrestling ring during the Biden administration. If the US is not to tackle it or is to pretend to get to work at it, Myanmar will be the first touchstone of Sino-US relations during the Biden administration. Once the Biden administration is deemed a sloppy government by the CCP, the breakthrough strategy to be adopted by the latter will be way swifter and more ferocious for there are only 4 years left. The small countries on the periphery of such an Island Chain will get embroiled anytime in the 4 years ahead in this round of breakthrough, and Taiwan will be the pivot, an island referred to by US general Douglas MacArthur as an unsinkable aircraft carrier.


Another Apple Daily commentator claims that the generals were not acting in the national interest and for the sake of the country, but only for their own corrupt economic interests. Thereby they were not like the national heroes of national independence anymore, but just corrupt dictators who will ruin the country as Ne Win did before.

“Military dictatorship will ruin country | Zuo Ding-shan

Published (HKT): 2021.02.10

During my time as a student, I knew the Secretary-general of the United Nations was a Burmese called U Thant, which has been translated to Yue Dan 宇丹 (now Wu Dan 吳丹 in the mainland). This gentleman had been the Secretary-general since 1961 and announced he would not seek an extension in 1971. During his ten years tenure, U Thant received support from large countries such as the U.S. and UK and was trusted by emerging countries. He represented the UN to mediate whenever there were regional conflicts and had many achievements. It was a miracle a small country could produce such a great figure. U Thant graduated from the University of Yangon when Burma was still a British colony. Education in Burma inherited the tradition of a British colony, and the University of Yangon used to be very famous in Asia. When Burma became independent in 1948, the University of Yangon was still one of the best in Southeast Asia alongside the University of Malaya. At the time, the National University of Singapore has not yet started. But when General Ne Win, who fought for Burma’s independence with General Aung San, launched a military coup in March 1962 and then ordered to transform Burma into a Burmese-style socialist state in April, Burma started its big setback and has not risen again. Ne Win was in power until 1988 when the new generation of military robbed his place. The family of dictator Ne Win had a tragic end, karma to someone who ruined his country.

From 1962 to 2015, the military has held power in Burma for 53 years. In the past five years, the military has retreated to the background and let people-elected Aung San Suu Kyi take office. Burma liberated slowly, people’s livelihood improves, and international investment increases. We thought Burma would follow the footsteps of Vietnam and Thailand. But the Burmese military decided Aung San Suu Kyi is an obstacle and initiated a coup last week. The soldiers have arrested several hundreds of government and parliament officials, and Burma has gone back to the military dictatorship.

Ne Win could be counted as a military hero when he fought for independence back then. But a little-educated person with a weapon is always the biggest threat to a country’s democratic system. These people only know how to fight and look down upon academics. They have the mentality of “we fought hard to get independence, so we should keep the power.” But these soldiers only have power, money, and weapons in their eye and do not know how to rule a country. Their recklessness has destroyed the country, and it is a tragedy for the people. In 1974, U Thant died of illness in New York, aged 65. When his body was flown back to Yangon, Ne Win had forbidden all official ceremonies and banned the officers from going to the funeral. Surprisingly, tens of thousands of people turned up, and U Thant’s coffin had ended up being snatched by some students who buried him under the grounds of the University of Yangon Students Union, which, of course, was later destroyed by Ne Win. A country that is brutal to its people and undermines knowledge, and ruled by the military will never have a future. Those who have been investing in Burma in the past few years should start praying for God’s mercy now.

(Zuo Ding-shan, columnist)


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