CHIANG MAI – Aung San Suu Kyi’s is a name that evokes courage and nobility in the face of tyranny. A poised, well-spoken heroine with a flower in her hair, she was released from 15 years detention in November 2010, in what turned out to be one of the first reform steps undertaken by Burma’s long-notorious military rulers.
Suu Kyi was elected to the country’s legislature last April—an outcome bordering on the surreal in the light of the two decades before, when the country known officially as Myanmar was as good as a synonym for draconian, capricious rule.
It is a transformation that has earned plaudits for Burma’s government, with whispers that President Thein Sein was even in contention for the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize, awarded to Aung San Suu Kyi in 1991 after the Burmese junta refused to acknowledge her landslide election win the previous year.
But Burma’s long-admired opposition leader has drawn fire from human rights groups for her refusal to bluntly condemn violence and discrimination against the Rohingya, Muslims living in western Burma who are denied citizenship by the Burmese government.
Speaking in India in November, Suu Kyi defended herself from criticism that she had not spoken up for the Rohingya. “But don’t forget that violence has been committed by both sides. This is why I prefer not to take sides. And, also I want to work toward reconciliation between these two communities. I am not going to be able to do that if I take sides,” she said.
Suu Kyi has, however, called for a review of Burma’s citizenship laws, saying that “those entitled to citizenship must not only get citizenship but must be given full rights of the citizen.”
But for Shwe Maung, an MP for Buthidaung in Arakan State, Suu Kyi’s words fell far short of addressing the issue of abuses still being committed in the state today.
“Daw Aung Sann Suu Kyi is using silence tactics to get support from the majority of the Myanmar population,” Shwe Maung, a Rohingya, told The Irrawaddy. “It looks as if she is focused more on becoming president than on addressing issues of human rights violations.”
Now Suu Kyi is generating more unease among admirers after accepting donations from some of Burma’s “cronies”—businessmen sanctioned for close ties with Burma’s former military rulers.
One of the men now bankrolling Suu Kyi’s party is Tay Za, a former log trader who expanded into aviation and hotels, among other sectors, but is described as “a notorious henchman and arms dealer” by the US Treasury.
As reported by The Irrawaddy, Tay Za’s Htoo Company gave Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) a US $58,000 contribution to support a party education scheme—money given in late December, at the same time as the Burmese air force was carrying out airstrikes against the rebel Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in the north of the country.
Suu Kyi defended taking money from Tay Za, who is said to have had a Damascene conversion to philanthropy after surviving a chopper crash in the mountains of northern Burma last year.
Burma’s opposition leader told reporters in Naypyidaw last week that “I don’t mind if they [the cronies] approach the NLD or other organizations, as long as their support is beneficial to our people, democratic reforms and our country’s health and education needs.”
However Tay Za is said to have close ties to the Burmese army, to the point of being a weapons supplier. “Rumors abound that Tay Za has long smuggled Chinese weapons into Burma via his aviation and trading businesses,” said a June 2009 cable from the US embassy in Rangoon.
It might make practical sense for Suu Kyi to accept donations from whoever is willing to give them in the run-up to an election in two years time. But such ties look untimely at best, given that on Monday morning, in an escalation of a war that had largely been fought between armed combatants in remote mountain outposts, three civilians died in a Burma army mortar attack on Laiza, a town of around 20,000 residents and 15,000 war refugees on the Burma-China border where the KIA has its headquarters.
Kachin and other rights groups are calling the attack a war crime. Fr. Joseph Nbwi Naw, a Kachin Catholic priest in Laiza, told The Irrawaddy on Monday evening that “people are terrified after today. Already today more than a hundred have come to the church to stay there, they think it might be safer.”
According to other US embassy cables, both Tay Za and Zaw Zaw—another of Burma’s cronies who Suu Kyi has been photographed in public with recently—have jade-mining interests in Kachin State, close to the town of Hpakant, which has been scene of on-off fighting between Burmese government troops and the KIA in recent months—possibly over control of the lucrative crony-linked mines.
There is more, however. A June 2009 US embassy cable went on to say that one of Tay Za’s colleagues “who has close ties to the senior management of Chinese firm Norinco [an alleged arms dealer that has business dealings in Burma], is the mastermind behind Tay Za’s involvement in the arms trade.”
The president of Norinco, or China North Industries Corporation, met Burma’s President Thein Sein and senior army officials in the capital Naypyidaw on Christmas Day, three days before Burma’s air force began attacking the Kachin rebels.
The parlay came less than a month after the Burmese government dispersed demonstrators opposed to a huge Norinco-backed copper mine at Letpadaung in Sagaing Division in a Nov. 29 nighttime show of force that left many of the protesters, including Buddhist monks, badly burned.
According to US embassy cables, Tay Za played “a pivotal role” in the negotiations in which Norinco acquired rights to the Letpadaung mine. Suu Kyi is heading up the official inquiry into the crackdown at the mine.
It is not clear whether military issues were discussed at the government-Norinco meeting, which took place as fighting escalated along the Burma-China border in Kachin State. After the meeting, Lower House Speaker Shwe Mann was reported by China’s Xinhua news agency as saying that Burma would “responsibly implement the agreements between governments and between companies, including that between the Norinco Group and the [Burmese] side, stressing bilateral cooperation will not weaken despite some difficulties.”
On Jan. 4, however, China publicly rebuked the Burmese government, after confirming that Burmese shells fired at Kachin rebels had landed inside China. “The Chinese side has launched representations with the Myanmar side requiring them to take effective and immediate measures to avoid the repetition of similar incidents,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said.
Laiza, the KIA headquarters, is separated from the Chinese town of Nabang only by the 20-meter width of a river, meaning that any Burmese assault on the Laiza would likely send tens of thousands of people into China.
Last weekend, around 1,000 Kachin residents in China marched to the small border post at Nabang, literally within arms reach of Laiza, to protest the Burmese army attacks on their kinsfolk across the frontier—something of a surprise given Chinese authorities’ typical quashing of public protests, and therefore perhaps a tacit warning from Beijing that it does not want a refugee crisis on its border.
China was likely angered by Burma’s 2011 suspension of the US $3.6 billion Myitsone dam, which would have flooded an area of Kachin state roughly equivalent to the size of Singapore, but would see 90 percent of the power generated exported to China.
That move won the Burma government international plaudits, as it came in response to growing public hostility to the dam project. But it likely means that Burma’s government will not go against Chinese wishes when it came to other big investments, such as the controversial Norinco-backed mine.
That mine has Burmese crony involvement in the form of the the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (UMEHL), a military-backed conglomerate, just as the now-paused Myitsone dam is backed by Asia World, a conglomerate thought to be Burma’s biggest and run by Chinese-Burmese crony Steven Law, son of Lo Hsing Han, once one the world’s biggest drug traffickers.
Lo Hsing Han once brokered contacts between the United Wa State Army (UWSA), Burma’s biggest non-state militia, and the Burmese government. According to Chinese media reports last week, the UWSA—which is thought to receive arms from China—is in turn arming the KIA in its fight against the Burmese army.