by Michael Peel in Bangkok - The Financial Times -
One of Myanmar’s highest profile tycoons has been unshackled
from US sanctions as Washington attempts to bridge the demands
of human rights activists and multinationals clamouring to do
business in the fast-opening frontier market.
Western multinational interest in the Southeast Asian country is
curbed in part by Washington’s prohibition on dealings with
scores of “crony” individuals and companies allegedly linked to
the repressive former military junta.
While rights activists support sanctions against powerful
individuals as a means of forcing political reforms they say are
slipping, opponents argue they are hampering US-linked
But sanctions can be slippery, as demonstrated by Win Aung,
who was removed from the US blacklist along with two of his
Dagon group companies.
Even while he was blacklisted, his position as head of
Myanmar’s chamber of commerce brought him into contact with US
business as well as government officials.
Mr Win Aung did not immediately respond to requests for
comment and the detailed reason for his appearance on the US
Treasury’s blacklist has never been public.
However, he was the subject of a confidential 2007 US embassy
cable entitled “A rising crony with connections” and published
by WikiLeaks. It alleged he and his family were using “their
close connections with the Burmese regime to amass great
wealth”, via road-building and construction of government
The Treasury said removing Mr Win Aung from the list
supported its “foreign policy goals”. It also said he had “taken
steps to support reform in Burma”.
Romain Caillaud, a consultant specialising on Myanmar,
described the removal of sanctions against the construction
magnate as potentially “very significant”, particularly if more
But Eric Rose, a US lawyer working with companies investing
in Myanmar, was more circumspect, calling the move a “baby-step”
towards increasing US economic engagement in a country where
Chinese, Japanese and — to a lesser extent — European companies
“The US is lagging way behind in fully engaging the people of
Myanmar in trade and investment,” Mr Rose said.
Official Myanmar government figures show that since July
2013, fewer than 20 companies — including Colgate-Palmolive,
Coca-Cola and Gap — have made mandatory disclosures of
investments in excess of $500,000 or in the oil and gas sector,
according to the website of the US embassy in Myanmar.
While the Myanmar military ended almost 50 years of rule in
2011 and handed power to a quasi-civilian government, companies
that prospered under the army are ubiquitous in the economy and
can be hard to avoid.
It emerged last year that John Kerry, US secretary of state,
had stayed in a hotel in the capital Naypyidaw owned by Zaw Zaw,
a prominent businessman under sanction by Washington.
While the US stresses the sanctions list evolves as
circumstances and people change, removals are relatively rare.
Exceptions include two former generals with a crucial role in
the political transition — President Thein Sein and Thura Shwe
Mann, Speaker of the parliament.
Companies say background checks are complicated by
individuals’ links to other parties not named in official
documents. A further technical difficulty is posed by the small
number of names that are widely used among Myanmar’s estimated
51m population, giving scope for confusion of people’s
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