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Coup Leader Grabs Absolute Power At Dawn

By Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- By seizing power, Myanmar's new coup leader Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has protected his murky financial investments and the military's domination, but some of his incoming international cash flow might now be up for grabs.

Sr. Gen. Min 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, six months before his mandatory retirement on his 65th birthday July 3.

Among other goals, Sr. Gen. Min apparently hopes he has protected himself, his family, and military colleagues from possible investigation over their extensive, lucrative financial deals.

"His financial interests must be considered as a motive for his coup," the Justice for Myanmar campaign group of activists said.

"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 said.

MEC and MEHL are reportedly invested in Myanmar's commercial port activity, container depots, jade and ruby mining, real estate, construction and other valuable sectors.

Sr. Gen. Min'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," it said.

"Aung Pyae Sone also owns Azura Beach Resort, which promotes itself as the 'largest resort in Chaung Tha'."

Sky One Construction was to 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 list of the family's holdings goes on and on.

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 military officers, including those who benefited when he allowed them to partake in the military's business ventures.

He also pleased them by procuring expensive weaponry and equipment from China, Russia, Israel and other dealers.

Many business in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, have been accused of corruption, allegedly including Sr. Gen. Min's financial activities.

But it is the tight control he, his family and his military comrades enjoy that makes their financial activity especially problematic, because there is no public scrutiny or accounting over their profits and transfers of ownership.

If Sr. Gen. Min retired instead of launching a coup, he would have become vulnerable to financial investigators and possible punishment if convicted.

"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.

International pressure against Sr. Gen. Min began years before the coup and was expected to now target him more intensely.

This time, he may not have deposed de facto civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, 75, to shield him.

Ms. Suu Kyi, a Nobel laureate, is popular in Myanmar despite being disgraced and stripped of many of her international awards during recent years.

Ms. Suu Kyi belongs to the ethnic Burman Buddhist majority. She shocked and disgusted international supporters after staunchly supporting the military's racist treatment against minority Rohingya Muslims.

UN investigators said the military should be prosecuted for "genocide" when it massacred, raped and expelled Rohingya from western Myanmar in 2017.

More than 730,000 Rohingya fled to neighboring Muslim-majority Bangladesh where they continue to languish in wretched camps.

Ms. Suu Kyi and the military denied the genocide charges and said Myanmar's security forces launched self-defense attacks against "terrorists."

In 2019, the U.S. clamped sanctions against Sr. Gen. Min 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 Sr. Gen. Min and three other officers in the U.S.

American business relations with them were criminalized.

U.S. President Joe Biden condemned the coup. Mr. Biden now faces demands by international human rights groups and others to increase sanctions against Sr. Gen. Min and his colleagues.

Ejecting Sr. Gen. Min and the military from dominating Myanmar is expected to be extremely difficult.

The military has ruled for 50 years, starting with a 1962 coup and bolstered by a 1988 putsch.

The military regimes brought down the economy from one of the most prosperous in the region to its current tattered inequality, worsened by decades of international sanctions.

Foreign investors meanwhile could knock down some of the pillars keeping Sr. Gen. Min and his colleagues afloat.

"Is Your Business Funding Myanmar Military Abuses?" New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) titled a report on February 3.

"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," Ms. Kashyap said.

In Thailand, Amata temporarily halted its $1 billion industrial estate development work in Myanmar amid concerns that international 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 February 2.

Suzuki Motor stopped its two car-making factories in Myanmar until the post-coup situation stabilizes.

***

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

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