Tay Za talks sanctions, business and politicsMonday, 06 June 2011Raimondo Bultrini - "La Republica"(Interview) – No foreign journalist had ever been allowed to cross the threshold of Tay Za’s luxuriousvilla 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 itsowner’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 dictatorialmilitary junta, Tay Za had been obliged to live as unobtrusively as any of its generals. He owns thelargest network of businesses in Burma and is one of the masters of the most tightly regulatedeconomy 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 acivilian administration freshly elected, the tycoon has decided to step out of the shadows.Tay Za at his office Photo: Raimondo BultriniTay Za is 47 years old, and the father of three children. He has a 14-year-old daughter who wasrecently 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 hadto say. This is a longer version of an interview that was published recently in La Republica, whichstirred some protests in Italy.After entering the house, I was greeted by Tay Za and led through marble-floored rooms withmedieval armour, including one of a samurai, standing amidst the marble columns. We settled into asnakeskin sofa that like all the armchairs in the immense lavish room, had armrests in the shape ofenormous golden conch shells, and had been bought in Italy.Surprisingly fresh faced and wearing form-fitting black trousers and mirrored sunglasses, Tay Zaadmitted immediately that he had ‘excellent relationships’ with both the military and the newly electedcivilian government.‘But I can only speak for myself’, he said, before we began the interview. ‘I have nothing to do withpolitics. I just do business as it’s a family tradition. The reason I’m talking to you–this is the first timeI’ve spoken to a foreign journalist–is that I want it to be known once and for all that I am the wealthiestman 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 of500 million dollars a year and to own dozens of companies, with interests ranging fromhelicopters to rubies?Answer: My holdings show that actually your Western sanctions don’t bother me. In fact, they suit mefine, and that goes for everyone else on your black list, including the generals themselves. But I don’tlike seeing our economy depending on Chinese trade alone. They have the money and can affordeverything, even the jade and precious stones from my mines. Everyone knows that China hasenormous interests here. The Chinese need a secure trade route for their goods from the Middle Eastand Africa without using the Straits of Malacca, which are controlled by the US. That’s why they’rebuilding huge ports along our western coast, and railways across the country up to Kunming, behindtheir 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 thrustus 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 getmore concessions. All this is going on because you are following the ‘moral principles’ of (former USpresident) George Bush, who will go down in history as America’s worst ever president for the messhe made in Iraq and its consequences. But you should realize that the real victims of your measuresagainst 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 mismanagementof the economy and the IMF has said the same. Besides, the sanctions are explicitly to punishhuman 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 operatehere with no restrictions whatsoever? They’re the hypocrites, moralizing while they knowingly swelltheir 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 andvegetable sellers going to survive? If we can only sell to the Indians and Chinese, in an uncompetitivemarket, 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 socialistgovernment carried out nationalizations. Through my father-in-law, (who was well connected with themilitary), I started to make a lot of money buying the rights to forestry land. By selling the timber, tendollars soon turned into a thousand. All I had to do was respect the laws of the country that had givenme this chance to get rich. It’s not for me to decide if they are good or bad. For me, they were good.
Tay Za invited Italian journalist Raimondo Bultrini to interview him at his home in RangoonQ: Don’t you feel disturbed by the poverty, the arrest of dissidents, the selling off of naturalresources?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 withthe 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 highpercentage of the administration and the armed forces love this country and want to see it grow. Nowwe are much stronger than we were in the past. Besides, the military really is gradually giving way tocivilians. Already, there are civilians heading regional governments rather than the highest-rankingsoldier 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 whereeverything is nationalized. Here, any entrepreneur can come and do business whether there aresanctions or not. I kept on working even when they froze my accounts in Singapore, and I had to turnto banks in China and the Middle East. But I live here and pay my taxes here, as my father taught meto. Years ago, he got furious with me when I foolishly wanted to become a foreign citizen. ‘If you goabroad, 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 sucha young age?A: I started out with nothing and worked 14 hours a day from 1988. That was the year the studentuprising was put down. It did, however, mark the end of General Ne Win’s socialism. I tried to figureout 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 aboutthe sanctions. How am I to blame? For becoming a multi-millionaire? I’ve been one since 1996, but tobuy my first concessions I had to sell my house and car and risk every kyat that I had. I can afford toretire now, and I may even do that. That’s why I can speak about all this without thinking about what’sin 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, wehave resources that are unique in the world. Education is the only thing we lack. Once, our elite usedto study in America and England. Today, all we have are Russian schools.