(Interview) – No foreign journalist had ever been allowed to cross the threshold of Tay Za’s luxurious villa located a few hundred yards from the home of Aung San Suu Kyi, the icon of the country’s pro-democracy opposition, in Rangoon. I did so recently with strong reservations, well aware of its owner’s pro-regime reputation and his allegedly unscrupulous business practices.
Ever since he began his rise, becoming a billionaire through his connections with Burma’s dictatorial military junta, Tay Za had been obliged to live as unobtrusively as any of its generals. He owns the largest network of businesses in Burma and is one of the masters of the most tightly regulated economy in Asia, perhaps the world.
His name is at the top of the list of 3,000 individuals on sanctions lists against Burma but now, with a civilian administration freshly elected, the tycoon has decided to step out of the shadows.
Tay Za is 47 years old, and the father of three children. He has a 14-year-old daughter who was recently cured of a form of polio at an Italian hospital in Milan. After the information became public, there was a protest by some organizations in Italy over her being granted a visa for treatment.
Although feeling some embarrassment at the nature of my scoop, I was prepared to hear what he had to say. This is a longer version of an interview that was published recently in La Republica, which stirred some protests in Italy.
After entering the house, I was greeted by Tay Za and led through marble-floored rooms with medieval armour, including one of a samurai, standing amidst the marble columns. We settled into a snakeskin sofa that like all the armchairs in the immense lavish room, had armrests in the shape of enormous golden conch shells, and had been bought in Italy.
Surprisingly fresh faced and wearing form-fitting black trousers and mirrored sunglasses, Tay Za admitted immediately that he had ‘excellent relationships’ with both the military and the newly elected civilian government.
‘But I can only speak for myself’, he said, before we began the interview. ‘I have nothing to do with politics. I just do business as it’s a family tradition. The reason I’m talking to you–this is the first time I’ve spoken to a foreign journalist–is that I want it to be known once and for all that I am the wealthiest man in Burma. Too many Chinese have taken our citizenship and are now boasting they are the richest. But they’re not pure Burmese’.
Question: You are at the top of sanctions list. How have you managed to create a turnover of 500 million dollars a year and to own dozens of companies, with interests ranging from helicopters to rubies?
Answer: My holdings show that actually your Western sanctions don’t bother me. In fact, they suit me fine, and that goes for everyone else on your black list, including the generals themselves. But I don’t like seeing our economy depending on Chinese trade alone. They have the money and can afford everything, even the jade and precious stones from my mines. Everyone knows that China has enormous interests here. The Chinese need a secure trade route for their goods from the Middle East and Africa without using the Straits of Malacca, which are controlled by the US. That’s why they’re building huge ports along our western coast, and railways across the country up to Kunming, behind their frontier. Our gas goes up there too, through hundreds of miles of pipeline.
Q: Don’t the generals share this fear of Chinese control?
A: You can be sure of that. But people abroad don’t seem to realize that sanctions are bound to thrust us into the arms of Beijing in the end. Just the other day, China offered a loan of 30 billion dollars, which the government hasn’t yet accepted but certainly will soon. In exchange, they will obviously get more concessions. All this is going on because you are following the ‘moral principles’ of (former US president) George Bush, who will go down in history as America’s worst ever president for the mess he made in Iraq and its consequences. But you should realize that the real victims of your measures against us here are the poor, who live hand to mouth.
Q: Aung San Suu Kyi has claimed the military government is to blame for its mismanagement of the economy and the IMF has said the same. Besides, the sanctions are explicitly to punish human rights violations.
A: China is always being accused of violating human rights, but where are the sanctions against them? As for the champions of these sanctions, why do America and France let Chevron and Total operate here with no restrictions whatsoever? They’re the hypocrites, moralizing while they knowingly swell their government coffers, not China, India, Thailand, Singapore and Korea.
Q: So what are the actual effects of the sanctions in your view?
A: One example; if the tourists don’t come, how are the hotel and restaurant workers and the fish and vegetable sellers going to survive? If we can only sell to the Indians and Chinese, in an uncompetitive market, the price of our products falls. That means our peasants, 75 per cent of the Burmese people, go hungry. Look, I come from a business family that lost everything when Ne Win’s socialist government carried out nationalizations. Through my father-in-law, (who was well connected with the military), I started to make a lot of money buying the rights to forestry land. By selling the timber, ten dollars soon turned into a thousand. All I had to do was respect the laws of the country that had given me this chance to get rich. It’s not for me to decide if they are good or bad. For me, they were good.
Q: Don’t you feel disturbed by the poverty, the arrest of dissidents, the selling off of natural resources?
A: Sure, there are problems. We are all human, and we make mistakes. Like your prime minister (Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi), always in trouble over women. Let’s say I agree about 80 per cent with the way my country is run. The dissidents pay the price of breaking the law, and as for principles, Singapore is not a democracy either because it only has one party. I think that here in Burma a high percentage of the administration and the armed forces love this country and want to see it grow. Now we are much stronger than we were in the past. Besides, the military really is gradually giving way to civilians. Already, there are civilians heading regional governments rather than the highest-ranking soldier in the area.
Q: Many people say this is just a superficial change.
A: However limited you think it is, it is more democratic than a socialist or communist system where everything is nationalized. Here, any entrepreneur can come and do business whether there are sanctions or not. I kept on working even when they froze my accounts in Singapore, and I had to turn to banks in China and the Middle East. But I live here and pay my taxes here, as my father taught me to. Years ago, he got furious with me when I foolishly wanted to become a foreign citizen. ‘If you go abroad, all your wealth will make other people richer, not your own’, he said to me.
Q: When did you begin your career, which brought you so close to the military regime at such a young age?
A: I started out with nothing and worked 14 hours a day from 1988. That was the year the student uprising was put down. It did, however, mark the end of General Ne Win’s socialism. I tried to figure out the opportunities that were opening up and it wasn’t for me to pass judgement on military rule, which had been with us since the time of the monarchy. In the 1990s, everyone was invited to invest, creating a more open economy and Chevron and Total stepped in. That’s what infuriates me about the sanctions. How am I to blame? For becoming a multi-millionaire? I’ve been one since 1996, but to buy my first concessions I had to sell my house and car and risk every kyat that I had. I can afford to retire now, and I may even do that. That’s why I can speak about all this without thinking about what’s in it for me. I say to the Americans–come and see Myanmar [Burma] and have faith in its opening up, don’t just swallow the nonsense invented by the CIA. There is a race on and, mark my words, we have resources that are unique in the world. Education is the only thing we lack. Once, our elite used to study in America and England. Today, all we have are Russian schools.