In recent days we have heard a few sniggers about U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry staying in Naypyidaw in a hotel owned by U Zaw Zaw, one of Myanmar’s crony capitalists still on the U.S. sanctions list. Excuses have been offered but one question has not been generally aired. Is there any point continuing to blacklist a group of tycoons for their close ties with a military junta that has long since departed the scene?
In any case, the picture of Myanmar’s crony capitalists is hardly black and white. A nuanced evaluation is offered by a new book just published by NIAS Press, Burma/Myanmar – Where Now? which one Burma specialist has judged to be ‘the handbook on Burma, at least for now’. (Recognising that over time its contents will be overtaken by events, editor Flemming Ytzen has launched a complementary website that documents new developments in many of the issues covered by the volume. The site is under construction right now but already worth visiting.)
The cronies get a lot of coverage in the volume, not least because of their political influence and economic power plus their key role as intermediaries between Myanmar and the outside world. However, as Marie Ditlevsen writes, there is also a more benevolent side to their activities.
While the cronies may have contributed to the impoverishment of the general population under the military rule, some of them have also used their wealth to establish development aid projects and companies that have become economically beneficial for the population in general. For example, when Cyclone Nargis struck the Delta region, Tay Za helped fund some of the relief work while the well-known Zaw Zaw set up the Ayeyarwady Foundation to support the victims of the disaster. Later, Zaw Zaw also supported the building of schools in various parts of the country. Some people believe that such altruism merely attempts to improve reputations from being ‘bad’ to ‘good’ cronies (and thus removed from sanctions lists), just as their support for the democratic movements is calculated from what is beneficial to their own future business.