A Burmese House of Mirrors

brown hindu temple under blue sky

Burma is such a complex mess of a nation that it calls for the talents of a reporter like Hannah Beech to hold those responsible to account. The best Western journalist in Southeast Asia, Beech dropped a Christmas special in the New York Times that unmasked a seemingly sympathetic business figure’s dealings with the murderous military junta that aims to reassert control of what they prefer to call Myanmar.

Her walk-through with a partly cooperative Jonathan Kyaw Thaung was particularly painful to me because I had met him, at least once, in years past at gatherings of Asian tycoons hosted by my then-employer, Forbes. (I’m foggy on whether all subsequent exchanges were remote.) He came across, as he evidently tried to do with Beech, as an earnest and gracious scion looking to restore what had been lost since the generals first grabbed his nation in 1962 and took it inward from the world and toward overall impoverishment. Like several of his Westernized cohorts among the young wealthy of Asia, Jonathan, now 39, sported trappings of globalized business, including  a turn at Babson College, noted for an entrepreneurial bent. The inference to be drawn was that he was not just another of the crony capitalists who enrich themselves in various dark corners of the region.

His soft-peddled entreaties included an invitation to visit the Pegu Club, the social landmark his family had restored to its former glory in colonial Rangoon. I never made it, or got very far with my curiosity about the publicly charitable Kyaw Thaungs. It takes much local knowledge to sort out the layers and players of Burmese times, past and present.

The military regime, known as the Tatmadaw, began relaxing its grip in 2012 but moved to seize back all reins in early 2021 after a national election threatened its domination of a civilian government under the National League for Democracy. (This was Nobel-winner Aung San Suu Kyi’s group, which still posits itself as the legitimate government, and its legacy is a puzzle in itself.) The Tatmadaw also wars with various ethnic militias for territory in a series of conflicts that have spanned decades. These bloody affairs were overshadowed in recent years by the relatively unified Buddhist campaign against the country’s Rohingya Muslims who were brutally forced out of their ground and into neighboring Bangladesh from 2017.

International sanctions have applied to Burma over much of the last 60 years, and the Tatmadaw’s latest iteration has invited contempt from most outsiders save, of course, for the Chinese Communist Party, which sees gain not only from business ties with the meddlesome military but also relief from insurgencies on the shared border.

In this tangled mix, enterprising capitalists who sought to profit from the last decade’s reopening of Burma to the world have had to find accommodation. Since the latest coup that has been particularly tricky, and this forms the backdrop for Hannah Beech’s lengthy account.

To summarize it, the Kyaw Thaungs, through an opaque ownership structure, have maintained multiple commercial ties with junta-dominated entities and otherwise abetted a war machine with an increasingly brazen disregard for human rights. Jonathan Kyaw Thaung at various interview points sought to distance himself and his family from the links but generally just fibbed, based on Beech’s reporting.

In the current—and violent–tussle for vestiges of institutional wealth and authority in Burma, including a financial spiral aggravated by the Covid crisis, even the best-laid plans of the Kyaw Thaungs seem to have gone awry. In the coda to the New York Times story, Jonathan and family have fled the wreckage of what he still depicts as a patriotic project.

What larger message is to be drawn from this journalistic effort? Over my 20 years of editing and occasionally writing about the magnates of Asia, I realized that the nexus to official power was usually a factor in their plans and success. This didn’t necessarily taint them so much as it gave their rise a different meaning—the same was true for their family or tribal ties. Where the regimes in question are venal—and this has been true in Burma and some other cases—these gray areas get blacker. Sentimental attachments to a homeland can be a cover for graft or worse. The reporter (or investor) must never let suspicions rest.

Published by timwferguson

Longtime writer-editor, focusing on topics of business and policy, global and local.

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