March 28, 2014

Cutting Off Our Nose to Spite Our Face in Myanmar

by Stanley A. Weiss

YANGON–One of them has helped reforest environmentally threatened regions and donated money to assist children with Down syndrome. A portion of every ticket his airline sells goes to social welfare organizations. And when Cyclone Nargis devastated Myanmar in 2008, his foundation contributed more than $8 million to rebuild schools, hospitals, and monasteries.

The other has footed the bill for school fees and medical expenses for the families of Myanmar’s political prisoners. He is actively recruiting doctors from other nations to improve the health care system here, and oversees the only national institution — the Myanmar football league — in which ethnic minorities participate on an equal footing with ethnic Burmans. And at a time when corruption threatens to derail this country’s nascent democracy, he is the highest-profile business leader to have opened his books to an internationally-respected accounting firm and then personally presented the full audit to United States Ambassador Derek Mitchell.

Which is not to say that Tay Za and Zaw Zaw, two of the most successful businessmen in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), are Boy Scouts. Over the past two decades, the head of the Htoo Group and the 46-year-old chairman of the Max Myanmar Group built their vast conglomerates of companies — stretching from banking to hotels to construction — by thriving on connections they developed with a regime notorious for human rights abuses. Those contacts landed the two on the U.S. government’s Myanmar sanctions list, which bans American individuals and companies from doing business with any friends of the old regime.

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