Aung San Suu Kyi

Aung San Suu Kyi. Maybe not as squeaky clean as people had hoped. Pic: AP.

A very interesting piece ran in The Times (UK) today under the headline, ‘Suu Kyi under fire for taking money from cronies of the former regime’. The paper cited sources from her National League for Democracy (NLD) party who admitted to “receiving hundreds of thousands of pounds from companies owned by the reviled bosses”, who reportedly include Tay Za and Zaw Zaw, two of the country’s most notorious tycoons.

According to a recent Irrawaddy article, the Tay Za-owned conglomerate, Htoo Trading, donated $82,353 to NLD education and health initiaves. Suu Kyi responded to the criticism by saying that the businessmen had contributed to a good cause. “What is wrong with that? … People may have become rich in different ways. What must be investigated is whether they were involved in any illegal action to make themselves rich,” she said.

That final statement is a bizarre one for her to make, given the notoriety of the cronies. A US cable from 2009 states: “Rumors abound that Tay Za has long smuggled Chinese weapons into Burma via his aviation and trading businesses.” Another donor, Kyaw Win, who gave $158,824 to the NLD via his subsidiary company Sky Net, is closely linked with recent land confiscations, while Zaw Zaw, like the rest, had been under US and EU sanctions (the magnate’s Max Myanmar consortium is one of Burma’s biggest, and helped build the new capital Naypyidaw). Considering the backgrounds of the donors, the money may well be tainted.

Suu Kyi is believed to have met with both Tay Za and Zaw Zaw several times between her release from house arrest and election to parliament in April 2012, although it is unclear what the nature of the meetings was. The NLD has not revealed whether it probed how each donor generated the funds.

Prior to becoming a politician, the opposition icon had long supported sanctions against the former junta and its cronies who dominate the economy. In a 1997 interview she said: “Unless there is free and fair competition, there can’t be healthy economic development. And what we have in Burma now is not an open-market economy that allows free and fair competition, but a form of colonialism makes a few people very, very wealthy. It’s what you would call crony capitalism.”

The use of Tay Za’s donations are particularly irksome, considering the relationship between Burma’s military and the opposition. As well as the alleged procurement of Chinese weapons, his Myanmar Avia Company is thought to have close business ties with Russia’s major state-owned military aircraft manufacturer, MAPO. “Opposition groups and military analysts say Tay Za’s position at Avia Export made him instrumental in the military’s purchase in 2001 of 10 MiG 29 jet fighters valued at US$130 million,” said Asia Times in 2008.

At a time when the Burmese military is using air strikes on Kachin army positions in the north, and yesterday’s shelling of the town of Laiza, which killed three civilians, Suu Kyi’s attempts to shrug off the controversy will grate. During a UK parliamentary session yesterday on the attacks in Kachin state, an MP said that “the planes [used by Burmese army] are of Chinese origin and the gunships are Russian.”

The Nobel Peace Laureate has been criticized for failing to speak out on behalf of the Kachin, and her recent statements on cronies (“Give them a chance to reform”) and the military (“I have a soft spot for the army”) won’t help. Benedict Rogers, from Christian Solidarity Worldwide, thinks the revelations “disappointing for many who viewed her as a moral leader in the mould of Gandhi or Martin Luther King.”

A feeling is growing that the democracy icon is treading on increasingly thin ice – she has refused to condemn army assaults in Kachin state, and speak out on the ethno-religious crisis in Arakan state. She would do well to really tackle head on the recent criticism she has received, rather than the high-handed responses she is increasingly deploying to answer critics.