RANGOON — Aung Thaung, a senior member of Burma’s ruling party with a reputation for hardline politicking that included alleged links to an infamous attack on the motorcade of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi more than a decade ago, died on Thursday at a hospital in Singapore. He was 74.
Win Myint, a fellow Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) lawmaker who plans to take his place in an election due Nov. 8, told The Irrawaddy that he was informed of Aung Thaung’s passing by the deceased man’s daughter on Thursday morning.
The Union Solidarity and Development Party adviser had been hospitalized two weeks ago, when on the afternoon of July 9, an ambulance cruised along the deserted boulevards of Naypyidaw to the airport of Burma’s capital. In the back of the vehicle, the ex-colonel laid unconscious after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage the previous night, and out on the airstrip a chartered plane was waiting to fly him to Singapore for treatment.
Known as a political hardliner who was close to former dictator Snr-Gen Than Shwe, the former military colonel’s name had become virtually synonymous with notoriety in an era of political reform that has otherwise seen many of Aung Thaung’s colleagues rehabilitate their reputations.
He was believed to be among the country’s wealthiest men—ill-gotten gains, it is widely believed—after serving as minister of industry under Burma’s former military regime.
Hailing from Taung Tha, a provincial town 80 kilometers southwest of Mandalay, the bespectacled Lower House lawmaker previously served as a leading member of the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA).
Founded by Than Shwe, the so-called “social association” that in 2010 transformed itself into a political party, the USDP, was infamous for clamping down on opposition to the junta, leading Suu Kyi to once describe the group as “a gang of thugs resembling Nazi Brownshirts.”
He has long been accused of orchestrating a mob attack on Suu Kyi’s convoy in northern Burma in 2003, when about 70 supporters of her National League for Democracy (NLD) were killed in an incident known as the “Depayin Massacre.”
When anti-Muslim riots hit central Burma in March 2013, The Straits Times of Singapore hinted at his possible connection to the communal strife by describing the emergence of a new Buddhist paramilitary force known as the “Taung Tha Army,” noting that Taung Tha is a town in Mandalay Division that “happened to be home to the notoriously hardline Aung Thaung.”
However, Aung Thaung has consistently denied any involvement in those incidents, telling The Irrawaddy in a June 2013 interview that the accusations were “nonsense” and “described without firm evidence.”
Aung Thaung was again thrown into the international spotlight last November, when the US Treasury Department blacklisted him for “intentionally undermining the positive political and economic transition in Burma.”
He later said he thought the sanctions, preventing US companies from doing business with him, were prompted by “someone’s request inside the country,” but the USDP leader declined to elaborate.
Despite his repeated denial of playing a leading role in the repressive regime that preceded the current quasi-civilian government, Aung Thaung has admitted to having a close relationship with Than Shwe, but attempted to temper speculation by describing that closeness as “to some extent,” saying there were others with tighter ties to the former strongman.
He had, nonetheless, not shied away from expressing his admiration for the man who ruled Burma with an iron fist from 1992 to 2011. In an interview with The Voice weekly a few weeks before his sudden illness, he praised the 2008 Constitution, which bans Suu Kyi from the presidency and entrenches a political role for the military, as Than Shwe’s greatest gift to Burma.
“The charter brings democracy to the country. It is his benevolent legacy. Were it not for it, there would have been many problems in the country,” he said.
Aung Thaung is survived by four children, some of whom are believed to be among the wealthiest people in Burma, with extensive business interests across multiple industries. IGE Co. Ltd. is publicly known as Aung Thaung family business, active in oil, gas and mineral extraction, as well as the high-end Amara Hotel in Naypyidaw and United Amara Bank.
RANGOON — Signboards and party flags for the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) were defaced and torn down in 20 Nansang Township villages on Tuesday night, according to local reports.
Four suspects from the government-aligned Matkyan militia group were arrested the same night, according to township NLD press officer Khin Maung Aye.
“It started around 8pm on Tuesday and it happened in 20 villages,” said Khin Maung Aye. “Four suspects were arrested around 1am. They said their superiors instructed them on their actions.”
The township, located 130 kilometers (81 miles) east of Shan State capital Taunggyi, is also home to the Napwe and SSS militia groups, and a branch of the Pa-O National Organization ethnic armed group.
The Matkyan militia is an offshoot of the Mong Tai Army—the former forces of notorious warlord Khun Sa, who was dubbed the “opium king” by the Western press for his involvement in the global drug trade. After splitting from the Shan State Army-South, the militia now operates under the control of the military’s divisional command and the Shan State Border Affairs Minister Col. Aung Thu, according to Taunggyi District NLD chairman Tin Maung Toe.
Local NLD officials had earlier been involved in negotiations with Matkyan leaders to campaign in Nansang ahead of November’s general election. Tin Maung Toe told The Irrawaddy that the NLD felt the need to negotiate its presence to ensure the security of its campaign workers, given the heavy presence of armed groups in the township.
Following Tuesday night’s vandalism, the NLD filed a complaint with the township court and police hauled the four suspects in for questioning on Wednesday morning.
Police Officer Aung Phyu from Nansang Police Station told The Irrawaddy that the four suspects were bailed at 3pm the same day, pending a July 29 court appearance. Khin Maung Aye disputes this, saying the alleged offenders were released without posting a bond. The Irrawaddy has been unable to independently confirm the conditions imposed on the release of the four suspects.
Tin Maung Toe said that the NLD is aware of the need for its members to campaign in groups, noting that campaigning alone in areas of militia activity or other dangerous locations would heighten risks for party workers.
“We have expected this sort of thing, because some of the political parties are backing armed groups,” he said. “They give them financial support and do business with them. We will inform the people as soon as similar cases arise and we will take action to minimize possible dangers.”
Pirates continue to hijack a coastal tanker on the average of once every two weeks to steal their cargo of fuel, according to data released Wednesday by the International Maritime Bureau’s Piracy Reporting Center.
A total of 134 incidents of piracy and armed robbery globally were reported to the center from January through June, an increase from 116 during the same period last year.
So far this year, 250 crew members have been taken hostage with one fatality and nine injuries.
Eleven out of the 13 hijackings reported in the first half of the year were in Southeast Asia.
“The serious attacks are the hijackings of the tankers in Southeast Asia and this year there has been a higher number in the first two quarters of this year than in the first two quarters of 2014” said IMB director Pottengal Mukundan in London.
Overall, attacks in Southeast Asia are greater in number than those of all other regions combined with one-third of all incidents occurring off the coast of Indonesia although “the majority of these related to low-level opportunistic thefts from vessels,” according to the IMB.
Founded in 1994 by U Aung Ko Win, the Kanbawza (KBZ) Group of Companies manages a diverse set of business interests, including in mining, banking, real estate, aviation and insurance. The eldest daughter of the firm’s founder, Ma Nang Lang Kham, cut her teeth working at KBZ Bank, one of the largest private financial institutions in Myanmar, with nearly 200 branches across the country and with 113 billion kyat (US$101.9 million) in capital as of 2014. She has risen to become the chairwoman of Brighter Future Foundation, Air KBZ, KBZ Bank and Kempinski Hotel Nay Pyi Taw under the KBZ group of Companies. Ma Nang Lai Kham spoke with The Irrawaddy’s Kyaw Hsu Mon about the role of women at Kanbawza, promoting women business leaders and encouraging women’s participation in all sectors of the economy.
Women are playing a greater role in Myanmar’s economic life. What challenges do they face?
As the country has developed more and more and connected with the international community, people’s horizons have expanded. There are lots of opportunities for everyone now. Women account for 51.8 percent of the national population. Previously, women were stereotyped as housewives once they were married. But now, a certain number of women are leading businesses shoulder to shoulder with their male counterparts. Women now play an important role in the economic development of Myanmar and they are a force for national development.
What policies should companies adopt to enhance the role of women in the workplace?
I would like to talk about an empowering culture rather than a policy. I would encourage every staffer, regardless of their age and gender, to exercise discretion and take responsibility rather than adopting an overall policy for an entire company. On a level playing field, we award and give promotions to female staffers depending on their competence, performance and expertise. In Kanbawza, we nurture a culture that provides equality and non-discrimination on the grounds of gender.
I believe that a large number of Kanbawza staff are women. Can you tell us about this?
Women account for 85 percent of staff in our Kanbawza Insurance Co. and about 53 percent for Kanbawza Bank. Women share senior positions with men in our company.
Married female staffers are entitled to maternity leave, fixed health allowances, plus leave to take care of their newborn babies if necessary. In addition, we assign duties that are appropriate for them when they return to work. We don’t transfer them to places far from their families.
We also provide training and do not discriminate on the grounds of gender in providing training. We award staffers depending on their performance and expertise. Interestingly, 35 percent of customers who take loans from Kanbawza Bank are businesses that involve or are led by women.
How important is parental support to women who want to become successful in business?
The guidance and support of parents are fundamentally important for a child to have success in life. On the other hand, a child who gets support from her parents needs to have interest in the business and devote tireless efforts. And she also needs to have big ambitions.
What do you expect will be the challenges as a young woman in relation to inheriting your family’s businesses?
Challenges exist everywhere, especially in Myanmar, which is developing fast. We need to hand down a great deal of knowledge from generation to generation and systematize our companies for further development.
I, together with my sisters, had to work almost daily at the bank branches to be familiar with the job since we were young. To make sure there is no generation gap, we coordinate with our parents. For our business to last long and succeed, we need new ideas for each business. As the first generation has established the business, the second generation has to maintain the success and should have entrepreneurial skills.
We have joined the Business Families Institute in Singapore and have adopted strategies for the greater success of our company. We also attend and take part in discussions at the World Economic Forum’s New Champions.
What is your educational background?
I studied basic education at Teacher Training College. Then I did a bachelor degree in business administration at the National University of Singapore. At present, I am studying a Master of Management at the University of Sydney in Australia. I intend to play a part in social and economic sectors important for building a developed country.
You have participated in high-level discussions on the role of women here. Can you tell us more about this?
You can see that women are taking a lead role not only in business but in other sectors. At Myanmar Investment Outreach Forum held in September 2014 in New York in the United States, we held a wide ranging discussion together with MelanneVerveer [Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security Executive Director] and businesswomen from other organizations on expanding the role of women in Myanmar’s economic sector, capacity and opportunities for women and the role of women in Myanmar society.
Again in December 2014, the Women’s Forum Myanmar was held in Naypyitaw and Yangon. The forum was attended by male and female leaders from various fields at home and abroad. The two-day forum included frank discussions on a wide-range of topics. Our country is weak in raising awareness and cooperation. Such forums should be held in other regions and states to unlock opportunities for women.
What is your understanding of glocalization and Myanmar?
Glocalization is adapting global economic concepts to regional needs. Since culture differs from one country to another, we need to maintain national identity and tune international economic concepts in to Myanmar culture so that we can keep abreast of international countries.
After 2011, Myanmar expats came back to the country along with their knowledge, experience, expertise and they could be tuned in to the specific needs of customers together with their local partners. Some difficulties they have faced working together with their local partners are that work procedures and social relations in the workplace are different.
You are serving as chairwoman of Myanmar Future Ray of Light Foundation. What does this involve?
We are engaging in a wide range of sectors including education, health, sports, poverty reduction, empowering persons with disabilities and youth development. We also provide help for internally displaced persons, victims of trafficking and disasters, and also help migrant workers return home. Like Forum-CEO Champions, we have formed Women’s Forum-CEO Champions Myanmar with male and female businesspersons to encourage the role of women in the economic development of Myanmar.
This interview originally appeared in the July 2015 issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.
KOH SAMUI, Thailand — Defence lawyers in the trial of two Burmese men accused of killing two British backpackers on a Thai resort island last year said on Wednesday they would focus on the reliability of crucial DNA evidence.
British tourists Hannah Witheridge, 23, and David Miller, 24, were killed last September. Their bodies were found on a beach on Koh Tao, a Thai island in the Andaman Sea popular with backpackers and divers.
The killings drew outrage in Britain and raised questions about the competence of Thai police and the treatment of migrant laborers in Thailand.
Following weeks of pressure on authorities to solve the crime, Thai police said in October that Burmese workers Zaw Lin and Win Zaw Htun, both 22, had initially confessed to the killings. Both later retracted their statements, saying they had been tortured into confessing.
The murder trial, which began earlier this month, has been consumed by allegations of police incompetence and the mishandling of evidence. Rights groups have also claimed the men are being used as scapegoats because of their status as foreign migrant workers in Thailand.
At the heart of the trial is a debate over DNA samples that police say link the two suspects to Witheridge’s body.
Police have issued conflicting statements about the DNA, including that some was lost or “used up.” They later took back that statement, saying DNA samples had not been lost.
Defence lawyers said that evidence would remain the focus when the trial resumed on Wednesday.
“Questioning today will focus on the DNA of the accused and the collection of the DNA,” lead defence lawyer Nakhon Chompuchat told Reuters.
A court on the island of Samui, where the trial is taking place, ordered this month that remaining forensic evidence in the case be sent for reexamination at the Thai justice ministry’s central forensic institute.
“We still have not seen any progress on the request to see the DNA gathered by police,” Nakhon said.
The arrest of several Chinese buyers for tax evasion and the weakening Chinese economy is hurting trade with Myanmar’s largest rice export market, said U Soe Tun, vice chair of the Myanmar Rice Federation.
“Exports across the border have slowed,” he said.
China is the destination for over half of Myanmar’s rice exports. This year marks the first time there have been legal rice exports from Myanmar to the world’s second-largest economy, but much of the business is still conducted on an informal cross-border basis through Muse in northern Shan State.
Rice trader U Lu Maw Myint Maung said that 59 rice traders had been arrested for tax evasion by Chinese authorities, leading to a noticeable drop in the trade. This figure could not be confirmed with Chinese authorities yesterday.
“Some Myanmar rice traders are reluctant to make deals because they have not received settlement from their buyers,” he said. “There are still a handful of Chinese buyers in the market, but deals have been slow as their offering price is too low.”
Mandalay traders also say they have seen less demand from Chinese buyers. U Thein Zaw, chair of Mandalay Rice Wholesale Centre, said the market has dried up with the recent arrests, though may pick up in the future.
“However, even though rice stocks have piling up due to a lack of demand from China, we haven’t yet seen the prices fall in the domestic market,” said a rice shop owner near to Aung Taw Mu Pagoda in Mandalay.
U Soe Tun added that it is more difficult to export by ship during the rainy season. In the meantime, Thailand is also selling its surplus rice, which is creating tight competition with Myanmar rice. Thailand is one of the world’s largest rice exporters, along with India and Vietnam.
Although the China trade may have hit a rough patch, Myanmar traders say it offers long-term potential. Traders say they are optimistic demand will return after the monsoon season
U Lu Maw Myint Maung said official exports are likely to continue to China, with the first official exports being shipped in May.
Translation by Zar Zar Soe