In Myanmar, notable Burmese family quietly outfitted a brutal army
Ultimately, the history of the Kyaw Thaungs parallels that of Myanmar: a country of immense potential foiled by a ruthless army and families willing to compromise in pursuit of its riches.
The Kyaw Thaung capitalized on their family ties to land lucrative contracts providing the military with European planes and a French coastal surveillance system. They bid on a deal to supply Italian weapons to the navy, according to a former company employee and an email discussing the offer. A relative, a former general who served as both energy minister and chairman of the national investment commission, officially endorsed the deals Kyaw Thaung companies have made with military-related companies or with the army itself.
To hide the true source of their wealth, they’ve set up a tangled web of companies in jurisdictions ranging from the British Virgin Islands to Singapore. Some of them were opened and closed with a single transaction, and they depended on ownership structures that sometimes obscured the involvement of family members.
Part of the family’s military purchases were designed to evade Western export controls intended to prevent the Tatmadaw from strengthening its command, according to international sanctions experts and five former company employees. Coastal radar technology, for example, could have broken those rules: It was operational when Rohingya Muslims attempted to escape a military massacre that UN investigators said could amount to genocide.
One of the family’s businesses donated more than $ 40,000 to the Tatmadaw for what the United Nations described as a cover-up of the ethnic cleansing site. A 2019 UN report on the persecution of the Rohingya by the military underscored this contribution.
In interviews, Jonathan Kyaw Thaung denied any impropriety, saying his relationship with the military was nothing more than any company operating in Myanmar. He said his relatives, including his father, did not supply the Tatmadaw with military equipment and that other families were the real arms dealers in the country. He noted that his grandfather, who started the family business, stayed away from the fishing or cattle trade because it would violate Buddhist prohibitions on taking lives.
Mr Jonathan Kyaw Thaung, 39, said in a later interview that he was not close to his father, U Moe Kyaw Thaung, and that he was not sure what type of business his father was running. He said it was not correct to refer to a family business due to the separate companies he and his father ran. (He was a director of one of his father’s companies and is currently a director of another.)