U.S. Focuses on Myanmar Tycoon, Wall Street Journal, 24 Oct 2007

Blacklisting of Tay Za is meant to put pressure on nation’s ruling junta

By JAY SOLOMON in Washington and JAMES HOOKWAY in Bangkok, Thailand

TayZa BioSeeking to constrict the Myanmar junta’s financial lifelines to the rest of the world, the Bush administration is targeting the businesses and family of tycoon Tay Za, viewed as one of his country’s biggest economic players.

Mr. Tay Za’s business empire has flourished in recent years thanks to his intimate ties to the junta’s top generals, according to Myanmar dissidents and Southeast Asian businessmen. His empire now spans from gem trading to an international airline.

As a result, U.S. officials view Mr. Tay Za as one of Myanmar’s primary conduits to the rest of the world, using its main city, Yangon, and Singapore as his bases. And the Bush administration is increasingly focused on drying up Mr. Tay Za’s finances as a means to hurt the government, senior Bush administration officials say.

Over the past month, the Treasury Department enacted a string of sanctions barring American citizens and entities from doing business with dozens of senior generals in Myanmar, a country the U.S. government calls Burma.

The Treasury Department’s actions were sparked by the junta’s violent crackdown last month against Buddhist monks and political activists seeking democratic changes. At least 30 people were killed and hundreds arrested, according to diplomats and human-rights activists.

The Treasury Department has also begun targeting private Myanmar citizens and companies seen providing material and financial support to the junta.

Friday, Washington blacklisted Mr. Tay Za, who is 40 years old, and his wife and son, according to theTayZa Treasury Department. It ordered a freeze of any assets they held in the U.S. and barred U.S. companies from doing business with them.

Attempts to reach Mr. Tay Za for comment were unsuccessful.

Treasury also sanctioned Mr. Tay Za’s principal businesses in Myanmar and Singapore. Among those are: Air Bagan Ltd., an international Myanmar airline; Htoo Wood Products Pte Ltd., a timber company with offices in Singapore; and Htoo Trading Co., a diversified holding company based in Yangon.

U.S. officials say they are considering additional sanctions against other Myanmar companies, banks and individuals engaged in human-rights abuses or aiding the junta.

“Business as usual is unacceptable” in Myanmar, President Bush said last week in announcing more sanctions. “I ask other countries to review their own laws and policies, especially Burma’s closest neighbors.”

U.S. officials say they are seeking assistance from China, India, Thailand and Singapore in cracking down on Myanmar’s generals and its supporters. Mr. Tay Za and his family are believed to live part of the time in Singapore, and some of their businesses have offices in the Southeast Asian city-state.

U.S. officials acknowledge it remains uncertain just how supportive these Asian countries will be in imposing financial sanctions to isolate Myanmar’s leadership. Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo Monday rejected suggestions that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, of which Singapore and Myanmar are members, should impose sanctions on the regime.

“Each country must respond according to its own interests and its own value system,” Mr. Yeo told Singapore’s Parliament. “For their own domestic politics, the U.S. and Europe have got to take the positions that they are taking. That’s fine. We cannot take the U.S. position.”

U.S. officials and human-rights groups say they believe the Myanmar military has largely regained control over the country after last month’s protests and civic disturbances. They also say the military continues to track down, interrogate and arrest individuals believed to have supported the pro-democracy campaign.

United Nations special envoy Ibrahim Gambari is seeking to facilitate a dialogue between the Myanmar military and chief opposition leaders, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. The U.S. and many European countries say they will seek official U.N. sanctions and an international arms embargo should the dialogue process fail.

Businessmen and others who frequently visit Myanmar say Mr. Tay Za keeps a lower profile than some other executives close to the ruling junta. He does this partly to avoid becoming the target of international investigations, but also to ensure he can still move his fortune around the world, these people say.

“He’s a shrewd operator who knows when to keep his head down,” says an academic who follows Myanmar.

Mr. Tay Za began his business in 1990, exporting timber from Myanmar’s thick forests. He later diversified into transport, creating a trucking network that helped transport the timber acquired from his logging business to Yangon and beyond.

Since then, he has built hotels — including an ecotourism venture — and started Air Bagan in 2004, flying to destinations within Myanmar as well as to Thailand and Singapore.

Diplomats and other Myanmar specialists say Mr. Tay Za often focuses on building alliances with the children of the country’s top officials — people who, as he has, have traveled around Asia and beyond and are more commercially savvy than their parents. His Htoo Trading Co. took over a company started by Aung Thet Mann, son of the third-most senior general in the junta, Thura Shwe Mann.

In 2005, Mr. Tay Za’s business dealings began to attract the attention of foreign governments. The European Union issued a visa ban on Mr. Tay Za and his family because his businesses allegedly benefited from their close association with the ruling junta, and issued an order to freeze his assets.