COVER STORY
Tycoon Turf
By AUNG ZAW SEPTEMBER, 2005 - VOLUME 13 NO.9

Burma’s business czars tread a wary path

 

In today’s Burma, two groups of people command from the general population a mixture of envy, anger and a dose of admiration. The first group is, of course, the military leadership, the generals who have been governing the country since 1988.

 

The rulers of Burma have so far somehow failed to persuade the public to accept the notion that the military government is there to serve the interests of the country and its citizens. The regime remains deeply unloved by most of the population.

 

 

The second group is the tycoons who grow rich in their impoverished country. Since the regime introduced an “open market economy” in 1989 and abandoned the “Burmese Way to Socialism” introduced by the previous government, many have taken advantage of this change, and the country has seen a growing number of tycoons and entrepreneurs.

 

Entrepreneurs opened business offices and set up companies overnight as they became self-appointed CEOs or managing directors in newly-established companies. Chauffeured in their powerful SUVs and sleek Mercedes Benz limousines, they travel far, locally and internationally, to conduct business and find new markets. Their business interests cover export-import, construction, agriculture, transportation and communications, mining, hotels and tourism, and the garment trade.

 

But the new entrepreneurs cannot succeed alone; they need partners and influential friends in order to flourish. Rule number one is to have friends in high places. Entrepreneurs need the blessing of the generals in order to conduct successful businesses. Not surprisingly, many businessmen have forged friendly ties with top military leaders, recognizing that the military is in virtual control of all aspects of the business sector. For example, the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings (UMEH) and the Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC) are the two Major industrial conglomerates controlled by the military dominating many of the key economic sectors of the country. Local businessmen and entrepreneurs flaunt their powerful connections by appearing on state-run TV and in newspapers rubbing shoulders with the generals at state functions, ribbon-cutting ceremonies and charity events.

 

The fact is that business and politics are inseparable in Burma. Many successful Burmese tycoons are involved in humanitarian projects, making large donations to government projects, sponsoring events organized by the regime and even participating in the National Convention, where, since 1993, a new constitution is being drafted.

 

There are both advantages and disadvantages in this relationship. Many tycoons find themselves blacklisted by the US and EU countries because of their association with the regime, and their business travels are confined to Asia and countries like Russia. But by hook or by crook they continue to prosper.

 

The secretive and corrupt business environment in Burma lacks any form of transparency, enabling many businessmen to find ways to bribe the top generals and win permission to do business, to export and import goods and gain concessions. Sometimes it works the other way around, with military leaders wooing the business community, exchanging favors for “contributions.” Dealing in drugs, involved in shady business practices? No matter, as long as the “contributions” roll in.

 

Bribery and corruption are thus rampant. Many businessmen are seen as government cronies and in some cases have become pawns in power struggles between the generals.

 

Last year, shortly after the removal from power of military intelligence chief and prime minister Gen Khin Nyunt, many prominent businessmen were summoned by a group of coup survivors—Gen Thura Shwe Mann, newly appointed prime minister Gen Soe Win and Lt-Gen Thein Sein, Secretary One of the  ruling council—and were urged to co-operate with the government. The bewildered businessmen were told that many cases of bribery and corruption had been uncovered in Gen Khin Nyunt’s departments. Honesty and the adoption of world standards of business behavior were now required, the bemused businessmen were told.

 

Prime Minister Gen Soe Win told them: “We wish to urge the entrepreneurs, who are responsible for systematic formation of the market economic system, to conduct their business peacefully and honestly, while equally considering the future of the state and of the people, in accordance with the laws and regulations.”

 

The assembled entrepreneurs were given a detailed description of the reasons for the October coup against Khin Nyunt. They were told that Khin Nyunt’s department and its staff members had been creaming large profits from business and border trade. Khin Nyunt had been told to stop the profiteering but had ignored the order, and he had had to go, together with more than 300 officers and high ranking officials. The National Investigation Bureau and military intelligence service were abolished and Khin Nyunt and his family put under house arrest. Many businessmen with strong ties to Gen Khin Nyunt were investigated.

 

In his speech to the entrepreneurs, Gen Soe Win said: “Bribing and corrupting with unscrupulous staff [and] having relations on [a] personal basis will not be beneficial in any way and will be seen and blamed by the people as plans designed to create a new class that benefits a group or a minority of the people. The government will, without discrimination, protect the interests of the majority of the people in accordance with the policy, rules and regulations instead of protecting personal interests.”

 

At the same meeting, Gen Thura Shwe Mann repeatedly warned businessmen to disclose information on how donations are made. Reports would have to be submitted to new intelligence chief Maj-Gen Myint Swe, he said, warning that those who neglected to do this would be held responsible.

 

Khin Nyunt’s downfall shook the Burmese business community to its roots, and many who had had close contacts with the disgraced prime minister adopted a very low profile indeed. But did Khin Nyunt’s removal and the regime’s call for the adoption of a new honesty clean up the business scene? The answer has to be a resounding No.

 

Businessmen who had (wisely, as it turned out) forged special relationships with the surviving and still powerful generals carried on business as usual, and they prospered.

 

The appeals by Shwe Mann and Soe Win for business honesty and an adherence to legal practices have had no effect—cronyism, nepotism, corruption and bribery continue to rule in everyday business life in Burma. Just two glaring examples: Gen Shwe Mann’s son was given special permission to export rice, while influential businessman Tay Za, who maintains close ties with the top brass, continues to receive special privileges enabling his empire to expand and flourish.

 

Yet business in Burma is no more free of risk than anywhere in the world. As one business analyst in Rangoon puts it: “Today, you might be treated like a prince but the next day you find yourself in the dog house. They all take risks.”

 

The tycoon lurching in his limousine along Rangoon’s potholed streets attracts admiring glances from passers by. But the road is bumpy and the man cocooned in his air-conditioned luxury doesn’t appear to be that happy.

 

Tay ZaTay Za

 

As president and managing director of the Htoo Trading Company, 41-year-old Tay Za is a major player in a wide area of Burmese business and industrial activities, ranging from tourism and the hotel trade to arms imports.

 

In 1990, while still in his twenties, Tay Za set up his company with an initial capital investment of US $333,333, concentrating on the export of timber and over the years gaining access to large areas of virgin forest. Ironically, one of his most recent ambitions is to diversify into eco-tourism.

 

One of his early ventures was the foundation of Htoo Transportation Services, covering heavy duty land and marine transport. Much later, he took to the air, establishing the domestic carrier Bagan Air.

 

Rumors that Htoo had entered the telecommunications sector and planned to sell GSM cell phones were denied by the company. Other rumors say the young tycoon is preparing to break into banking.

 

Timber, transport, tourism, construction, property development, palm oil production, arms dealsthe list of the Htoo Trading Company’s interests grew impressively, and so did the company’s earnings, which finance a tycoon’s lifestyle and give him easy access to the top echelons of power. Along the way, he worked with, and then parted company from, the well-known businessman Aung Ko Win.

 

Three years into the life of the Htoo Trading Company, Tay Za expanded his dealings with the Rangoon regime by supplying the military with aircraft parts. He created Myanmar Avia Export, Burma’s sole representative of Russia’s Export Military Industrial Group, known as MAPO, and of the Russian helicopter company Rostvertol. Military analysts say he was instrumental in the junta’s purchase of advanced MiG-29 fighter-bombers and helicopters from Russia.

 

Despite the presence of Russian arms dealers in Rangoonconfirmed by western diplomatsHtoo denies involvement in arms trading, although admitting that it does sell helicopters to the regime.

 

Tay Za’s close connection to the regime is undoubtedly one of the keys to his success. Ties to the top are vitally important when doing business in Burma, and Tay Za has no shortage of friends in high places. He is known to be close to Burma’s paramount leader, Snr-Gen Than Shwe, and the general’s family. Rumors that he is involved with one of the general’s daughters are strongly denied by the company and the young woman’s family, however.

 

Yet courting the children of powerful generals in order to take them on board his company appears to be one of Tay Za’s business strategies. An important coup was to seal a friendship with Aung Thet Mann, son of the junta’s number three, Gen Thura Shwe Mann, who is tipped to take over the leadership when Than Shwe goes.

 

Aung Thet Mann’s company, Ayer Shwe Wah, is now part of Htoo, and the general’s son is reaping big cash rewards from the arrangement. When the regime relaxed its ban on rice exports, Aung Thet Mann’s company was awarded the first rice export licence, providing for the delivery of 11,000 tons to Bangladesh and Singapore. A further lucrative deal handed Ayer Shwe Wah a contract to supply fertilizers to farmers in the delta regions.

 

Business rivals accuse Aung Thet Mann of winning contracts for construction works in the project to move the War Office to Pyinmana because of his access to government supplies of cheap cement, enabling him to submit the lowest tenders.

 

It’s not all plain sailing for the two pals, howeverdiplomatic sources say that their plans to visit tourist resorts in Australia were dashed when their visa applications were rejected. Tay Za’s business dealings are also reported to be coming under scrutiny from the Special Branch, and he was decidedly nervous about The Irrawaddy’s examination of his activities in the magazine’s July issue.

 

Protectively, perhaps, Tay Za appears to be hedging his bets on the future, like any clever businessman, by adding Kyaing San Shwe, Than Shwe’ s son, to his coterie of friends. He sealed his new friendship by buying Kyaing San Shwe an American-made Hummer, the civilian version of the military Humvee that is the latest status symbol on American highways and which now turns heads on Rangoon streets.

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Tun Myint NaingTun Myint Naing

 

Tun Myint Naing, or Steven Law—as he likes to be known—is managing director of Asia World Co, Burma’s biggest conglomerate, but he is probably better known as the son of the 1970s drug lord and militia leader Lo Hsing Han.

 

Lo is chairman of Asia World, and its guiding force, leaving his son with a hard task of maintaining the company’s reputation and credibility.

 

Saddled with this family background, Law keeps a low profile and rarely speaks to the international press. Although he travels extensively within Asia, he is banned from entering the US, which refused him a visa in 1996 because of his suspected involvement in drug trafficking.

 

The US suspicion was a legacy of Law’s business association with his notorious father, believed by US narcotics agents in the 1970s to control Southeast Asia’s most heavily armed drug trafficking organization.

 

The militia raised by Lo—an ethnic Chinese from the Kokang region of Burma’s section of the opium-producing Golden Triangle—was co-opted by the Rangoon regime to join in the fight against the Communist Party of Burma. But Lo fell foul of the regime, and in 1973 he was put on trial for treason and sentenced to death. Seven years later he was amnestied and returned to the Kokang region.

 

In subsequent years he developed close relations with the former prime minister Khin Nyunt and his regime, helping to seal ceasefire agreements with Wa and Kokang forces in the early 1990s. Khin Nyunt’s downfall last October doesn’t appear to have had any negative effects on the close relations between the Lo family and the Rangoon power base—regional press reports disclose that just one phone call secures a meeting between Steven Law and a cabinet minister of his choice.

 

Asia World Co was founded on June 5, 1992, with strong financial backing and on a broad platform of business activities. Its many construction projects include road building in Shan State, the renovation of Rangoon international airport, a deepwater port in Rangoon and a US $33 million toll highway from the heart of Burma’s opium cultivating region to the Chinese border. The Rangoon port terminal is one of the best in the country, handling more than 40 percent of the country's container traffic, and with ambitious expansion plans.

 

Transport and communications also figure in Asia World’s wide range of activities. It runs the Leo Express bus line from Rangoon to northern Burma and operates a cargo and container shipping enterprise out of Rangoon port, fuelling speculation that the company is involved in drug trafficking by sea. Independent observers say that while Asia World is making money from laundering drug trade profits, it’s doubtful the company is actually engaged in trafficking.

 

Apart from his Burma operations, Steven Law has developed strong business connections with Malaysian-born tycoon Robert Kuok. Beginning with a deal to import Kuok cooking oil, Asia World’s business association with the Malaysian magnate grew to encompass real estate investment and the sub-contracting of several Kuok Group projects, including the construction of two top Rangoon hotels, Traders and the still uncompleted Shangri-La Through its partnership with Asia World, Kuok Singapore Ltd became by late 1996 Burma’s single largest real estate investor, pumping more than $650 million into that sector.

 

The Singapore connection—symbolically sealed by Law’s marriage to his Singapore business partner Cecilia Ng in 1995—was aired in 1996 in an Australian television program titled “Singapore Sling.” Made by Australia’s Special Broadcasting Service, the program linked Steven Law and his father to several legitimate Singapore-based businesses.

 

Asia World’s legitimate business activities are well documented, although a company spokesman declined to talk to The Irrawaddy about them.

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Aung Ko WinAung Ko Win

 

Aung Ko Win—prior to 1988, a school teacher and still known in some circles as “Saya Kyaung”—has risen from obscurity to become a powerful and well-connected business figure in Burma. He is the president of Kanbawza Bank, established in 2000, and is known to enjoy a close relationship with Deputy Snr-Gen Maung Aye, the vice chairman of Burma’s ruling junta.

 

Aung Ko Win’s connections with Maung Aye, and the accumulation of his considerable wealth, began in the early 1990s as a purchaser for the Shan Yoma Shopping Center in Tachilek (owned by then commander Maung Aye). He also supervised gold and gem mines in Mong Hshu, Shan State.

 

Since his humble beginnings in business, which included forays in agricultural business and imports—he was previously the only person to possess an import license for cement—Aung Ko Win has headed several successful enterprises, including the Myanmar Billion Group, Nilayoma Co, and Kanbawza Hospital in Taunggyi, Shan State. Ever willing to exploit less extravagant business options, Aung Ko Win also serves as the local agent for London Cigarettes in Shan and Karenni states.

 

Aung Ko Win assumed control of Kanbawza Bank with substantial financial backing from businessmen in the cooking oil and gem industries. As with other Burmese tycoons, Aung Ko Win has also used his wealth to support civic and cultural development. Rangoon press has reported that he donated a significant portion of the bank’s annual profits to Burma’s national football team and gave US $2.85 million to various public projects, including the renovation of Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon.

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Serge PunSerge Pun

 

Born in Rangoon in 1953, Serge Pun—chairman of the multinational SPA Group and Rangoon’s Yoma Bank—left Burma for Beijing in 1965, three years after the newly minted dictator, Gen Ne Win, seized power and began expelling foreign residents.

 

Serge Pun spent many of his formative years within China’s turbulent Cultural Revolution, during which he was “re-educated” on remote farms throughout the country. He left China in 1973 for Hong Kong, where he began his career in real estate before establishing Serge Pun & Associates—primarily active in property developments across Asia, Europe and North America—in 1983. Following the 1989 coup that toppled Ne Win, and the establishment of an open market economy by Rangoon’s new dictators, Serge Pun returned to Burma and founded SPA Myanmar in 1991.

 

SPA Myanmar has since become a successful conglomerate of some 40 business enterprises with interests in such areas as financial services, real estate development, manufacturing, technology, construction and real estate, the automotive industry and healthcare. The group’s flagship company, the publicly-owned First Myanmar Investment Co, has 3,500 shareholders.

 

A keen businessman with a knack for identifying lucrative new markets, Serge Pun is said to have developed the successful Pun Hlaing Golf Club after learning that Burma’s ruling generals were avid golf fans. SPA Myanmar’s most recent venture—Pun Hlaing International Hospital—is poised to exploit another propitious market. Burma’s first privately-owned general hospital, the US $21 million 95-bed facility became fully operational in June 2005. Bangkok’s highly respected Bumrungrad Hospital oversees the management of Pun Hlaing Hospital, and though the enterprise has yet to turn a significant profit, business sources in Rangoon suggest that it will in the future. A growing number of foreign residents and well-to-do Burmese currently seek medical treatment in Thailand and Singapore.

 

Apart from his considerable business ventures in Burma, Serge Pun and SPA maintain a number of overseas operations, including branches in Hong Kong and Thailand. SPA Thailand was a major player in the Thai real estate boom in the late 1980s and early 1990s, during which it developed the Bangkok landmark Abdulrahim Place. Other international projects include the popular Sand River Golf & Country Club in Shenzhen, China, and real estate projects such as the Steward Terrace on the Peak and the Village Gardens in Kowloon, Hong Kong.

 

The chief executive officer of SPA, Martin Pun—Serge’s brother—also chairs numerous non-profit organizations such as the Business Coalition against AIDS and the Tuesday Club, an informal organization comprising foreign businessmen in Burma. The brothers also sponsor the SPA Foundation, a charitable organization that provides assistance to Burmese students for their undergraduate and post-graduate studies. With his brother Martin, Serge Pun is widely esteemed by his peers for being among Burma’s most professional and least corrupt business leaders, despite maintaining good working relations with Rangoon’s military government.

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Maung WeikMaung Weik

 

Another of Burma’s young business barons, Maung Weik founded the Maung Weik & Family Co, which first gained prominence a decade ago and has since become the biggest importer of steel and gilding glue—used in the building and maintenance of Burma’s many pagodas. While his company has earned much of its profits from the development and construction sectors, Maung Weik also speculated heavily in the futures markets (beans and pulses) for several years until profits flattened out in 2005, and two years earlier began exporting marine products.

 

Maung Weik stirred up controversy in 2004 with his purchase of 44 acres of Rangoon’s Hlaing Campus (formerly Regional College No. 2). Former university students and faculty were resentful of his plan to build a housing development on the site. Other members of the business community also complained that the campus belonged to the people of Burma and should not be parceled out to investors by the government. Maung Weik’s deal for the Hlaing Campus was reportedly inked by ousted prime minister Khin Nyunt. Rumor now has it that criticism of the deal has led Maung Weik to sell the 44 acres to fellow tycoon Tay Za.

 

Other difficulties have posed problems for Maung Weik, whose company has in recent years earned a reputation for shoddy construction materials and poor service. Such criticism and speculation about Maung Weik’s connections with Khin Nyunt, say fellow businessmen in Rangoon, have compelled the young tycoon to keep a low profile. These reports would seem to have been confirmed as Maung Weik insisted on his exclusion from any discussion of Burma’s top business leaders when contacted by The Irrawaddy, and suggested that many other Burmese businessmen were wealthier and more successful.

 

Perhaps Maung Weik sells himself short. He has considerable connections within Burma’s military government. He is married to the niece of Maj-Gen Myint Swe, the commander of Rangoon Division and head of the newly created Burmese intelligence units, and has given generously to a number of government projects and schools—including a recent donation of 100 million kyat (nearly US $100,000) to Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon. It is also widely believed in Rangoon’s business circles that Maung Weik fought strenuously for the affections of Snr-Gen Than Shwe’s middle daughter, a connection that would have significantly improved his business prospects.

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Htay MyintHtay Myint

 

Chairman of the Yuzana Co, established in 1994, Htay Myint hails from southern Burma. His company is well known for its heavy investment in Rangoon’s residential and commercial property markets, as well as growing interests in agricultural and fishery ventures. Yuzana was recently granted a sizeable loan from the government to subsidize several projects facing financial difficulties.

 

The CVs of Burmese tycoons would not be complete without memberships in numerous civic and professional organizations. Htay Myint’s is certainly no different. He serves as president of the Construction Owners Association, the Fishing Vessel Owners Association, and the Myanmar Projects Association, among others.

 

Among the more notable investments of Yuzana are Rangoon’s Yuzana Supermarket—one of the biggest shopping complexes in Burma—and the three-star 198-room Yuzana Hotel, also in Rangoon. Like many of his colleagues in the tycoon community, Htay Myint has been linked with former prime minister Khin Nyunt, who is believed to own a significant number of shares in Yuzana.

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Khin ShweKhin Shwe

 

One of Burma’s leading real estate moguls, 55-year-old Khin Shwe claims to be a pioneer in almost every field of the country’s economic development. The National Development Company Group, which he heads as chairman, has more than 4,000 shareholders and a declared mandate to modernize the nation. As president of the Myanmar Construction Entrepreneurs Association he has a paramount position in that sector of the economy, and as chairman of the Myanmar Hotelier Association he has a central role to play in promoting tourism and hotel construction.

 

His considerable business holdings include Zaykabar Co (he is president of the company), 3,000 acres of Mingalardon Garden City, the 1,000-acre Yangon Industrial Park, the Royal Mingalardon Golf and Country Club, Zaykabar Engineering & Construction Co, Mya Yeik Nyo Royal Hotel Group (the hotel was a favorite haunt of former prime minister Khin Nyunt and his cronies), Karaweik Palace, Kandawgyi Nature Park and Recreation Zone, and Myanmar Sampeorna Tobacco Co. His tobacco interests led him to establish Burma’s first tobacco joint venture with Indonesia in 1995, with a capital investment of more than US $30 million.

 

Zaykabar’s 75 projects undertaken since 1978 (46 of them government contracts) include a drilling site and access roads for Myanmar Shell BV (Netherlands) and Croft Exploration (UK), Sedona Hotel, YKK Golden Hill Tower and Marina Residential Apartments.

 

One of the company’s most recent projects is Rangoon’s Pyay Garden Condominium, the tallest residential condominium in the capital, comprising two 25 story towers and costing around $30 million. It was originally intended to be the site of the 2006 Asean summit meeting, but Burma’s renunciation of the Asean chairmanship changed those plans. Now the building is slated for completion in 2007.

 

Following tightened sanctions by the US against Burma in July 2004, Khin Shwe signed trade agreements with neighboring China and Thailand, pledging to double border trade. He has also declared his intention to build up business relations with Japan, South Korea and Thailand, and is chairman of the Myanmar-Japan Friendship Association, the Myanmar-Korean Friendship Association and the Myanmar Thai Development Co.

 

Politics are also on businessman Khin Shwe’s agenda, and in 1997, he reportedly hired an American company, Bain and Associates Inc., of Alexandria, to promote a favorable international image of Burma—an endeavour that must have failed miserably.

 

He has publicly backed the junta’s seven-point “road map” to democracy, participates personally in National Convention sessions and toes the government line on democratic opposition—criticizing Nobel Peace Prize recipient Aung San Suu Kyi, accusing her of creating divisions among the Burmese people by acting out of self-interest. Nevertheless, when prime minister Khin Nyunt was toppled last October it was rumored that Khin Shwe was being investigated because of his close connection with the ousted leader. But he survived the purges and appears to be on good terms with the current leadership, perhaps because his daughter is married to the son of Gen Thura Shwe Mann, number three man in the ruling council.

 

Donating to worthy causes, usually government ones, is no problem for the wealthy entrepreneur and he makes no secret of his generosity, claiming that he and his family have so far given away more than 2 billion kyat (US $2 million) for the renovation of pagodas, education, sports facilities and regime-organized social activities.

 

The money was well spent though, for (besides lucrative government contracts) it won him one of Burma’s highest honors, the 1998 Aggamaha Sirisudhamma Manijhotadhara award, and the Excellent Performance in Social Fields (first class) award in 1995.

 

In 1998, Khin Shwe accepted an apparently bogus honorary doctorate in business administration from the University of Washington at a Rangoon ceremony. It was later revealed that the university never awarded him such a degree.

 

In Burma’s sporting arena, Khin Shwe can claim to have introduced archery to the country, and he is president of the Myanmar Archery Federation as well as of the Myanmar Swimming Federation.

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Zaw ZawZaw Zaw

 

The managing director of Max Myanmar Co, Zaw Zaw is one of Burma’s youngest tycoons. He is the son-in-law of Thein Tun, also a successful businessman and the man who brought Pepsi to Burma. While the company has some involvement in the soft drink market, its principal focus is the development of road and rail construction throughout Burma, investment in rubber plantations and the import-export of heavy machinery. The company also owns and operates a three-star hotel in Chaung Tha, a popular resort town.

 

Zaw Zaw founded Max Myanmar in 1995, before which he lived in Japan and exported used automobiles to Burma.  As other business leaders—including Tay Za—have done, Zaw Zaw has become a member of the Myanmar Football Federation, where he serves as chairman. Businessmen are often recruited by the federation to sponsor sporting events and hire coaches to train the players. Zaw Zaw also chairs Burma’s Tennis Federation.

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Eike HtunEike Htun

 

Eike Htun—managing director of Olympic Construction Co and deputy chairman of Asia Wealth Bank—arrived on Rangoon’s business scene by a reportedly circuitous route. Under Ne Win’s socialist regime, Eike Htun sold tea in the Chinatown section of Rangoon, where he made his home. Some say he also drove a truck to help make ends meet.

 

He subsequently rose to prominence, though not without hardships and despite persistent rumors of illicit connections with shadowy Taiwanese business figures and the international drug trade.

 

Eike Htun’s Olympic Construction Co invests heavily in residential property and hotel development in Rangoon. As a banker, his road to wealth was much bumpier. The banking crisis of 2003 hit Asia Wealth Bank hard. Sources in Rangoon now suggest that it faces insolvency as well as a potential takeover by fellow tycoon Tay Za’s Htoo Trading Company.

 

Established in 1994, Asia Wealth is the largest bank in Burma. After 2003, the bank came under scrutiny by the US Treasury Department, which imposed special sanctions on it and Burma’s Mayflower Bank for alleged involvement in money laundering. Some Burma watchers have suggested that Asia Wealth receives considerable support from Burma’s sizable and affluent ethnic Chinese community.

 

A trip to Chiang Mai for a banking conference in 2000 garnered further unwanted attention for Eike Htun, as Bangkok-based newspapers rekindled allegations of his involvement in the drug trade. Sources in Rangoon told The Irrawaddy that Eike Htun and Win Maung—chairman of Asia Wealth Bank—are the puppets of powerful Chinese businessmen outside Burma, and that both men are in reality not the “big fish” they appear to be.

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Chit KhaingChit Khaing

 

Chit Khaing, founder and managing director of Eden Group Co, began his steady climb to the top of Burma’s business community with the opening of the trendy Eden restaurant in a posh Rangoon suburb in the early 1980s. Eden Group has since become a major force in the construction industry in Rangoon and Pagan.

 

Among its many lucrative projects are three universities built for the Burmese government: Panglong University in Shan State, the Government Technological Institute in Myingyan, Magwe Division, and Pakokku University. Reluctant to compete with other leaders in Burma’s business community, Chit Khaing once claimed to prefer investing in rural areas that are not as heavily targeted by other developers. To this end, he once went as far as Putao in northern Kachin State to build guest houses and hotels. These investments, Chit Khaing claims, are now making steady profits. His reticence about popular development locations, however, has not stopped Eden Group from building numerous hotel complexes in some of Burma’s most popular tourist spots.

 

The extent of Chit Khaing’s earnings is not known, but he is said to have purchased earlier this year the luxurious Marina Residence condominium complex—home to many in Rangoon’s affluent expatriate community—for US $4.8 million. A significant player in the lucrative cross-border trade with China, and rarely in need of financial backing by the government for his many development projects, Chit Kaing is clearly not strapped for capital.

 

Chit Khaing’s reputed attempts to forge close ties with Burma’s military leaders—particularly with former prime minister Khin Nyunt—might have caused more problems than they solved. Since Khin Nyunt’s ouster last October, Chit Khaing has kept a low profile, particularly after his name appeared on a list of 19 businessmen known to be linked to Khin Nyunt—all of whom were investigated by the junta last year. Power and wealth has its privileges, however, as Chit Khaing was never arrested or formally charged.

 

Burma's Other Barons

 

While not currently ranked among Burma's top tycoons, the following businessmen have nonetheless amassed considerable fortunes and stand poised to reap even greater profits and privileges in future years—that is, if they can navigate successfully Burma's turbulent political waters.


- Kyaw Win, founder and chairman of Shwe Thanlwin Co

- Nay Win Tun, managing director of Ruby Dragon Jade and Gems Co

- Michael Moe Myint, managing director of Myint & Associates Group Co

- Aung Thet Mann, managing director of Ayer Shwe Wah Co

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