Image: Tay Za
Roslan Rahman  /  AFP-Getty Images file
Myanmar tycoon Tay Za was in Singapore on Sept. 7 to launch his airline company's maiden flight from Yangon to Singapore.
updated 10/30/2007 3:27:22 PM ET 2007-10-30T19:27:22

On the streets of Yangon, it is often said Myanmar is ruled not only by a gun-wielding junta but by a businessman named Tay Za, who is thought to have a finger in every lucrative pie and is now a target of U.S. sanctions.

Although virtually unknown internationally until his blacklisting this month by the United States, Tay Za, 41, is legendary in his Southeast Asian country as one of the richest, best-connected and most successful men in one of the world's poorest nations.

"He is really crucial to the regime. As far as we know, he is also the richest guy in the country," said David Mathieson, consultant for the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch.

Others, however, think his power and wealth may be overstated. But whatever its extent, they say, most of his business is in Asia, and the American sanctions apply only to his assets and business relationships in the United States, which are thought to be few.

Described as eloquent and charismatic, Tay Za is said to have a cozy personal relationship with Senior Gen. Than Shwe, the junta leader, and his family — and a hand in virtually every moneymaking venture in a country where the state dominates the economy.

He has investments in tourism, logging, gems, palm oil, real estate, construction and airlines. His Htoo Trading Co. grabbed most of the construction contracts for the government's multimillion-dollar move from the old capital, Yangon, to the new one, Naypyidaw.

To many, Tay Za represents a group of elite businessmen closely intertwined with the military rulers who farm out concessions for Myanmar's rich natural resources. In return, their access to global markets helps grease the wheels that keep the regime afloat.

Wife, son also targeted
Analysts said Tay Za and other influential tycoons on the U.S. blacklist may have more influence on the junta than foreign sanctions and diplomacy.

The U.S. Treasury Department sanctions were imposed on Tay Za; his wife, Thidar Zaw; and son, Pye Phyo Tay, as well as Tay Za's main businesses, including Htoo, Air Bagan Ltd., Htoo Wood Products Pte Ltd. and Pavo Trading Pte.

Four state enterprises are Myanmar's top exporters. Htoo Trading, engaged in logging and exports of timber, is the fifth, earning $65.1 million between 2006 and 2007, according to the Myanmar Times, a weekly newspaper affiliated with the government.

Tay Za started off as an ordinary merchant and married into a wealthy timber family. Then he became an arms dealer, which gained him the generals' trust and enhanced access to large tracts of Myanmar's virgin forests.

A son of a former army colonel and himself a former military academy student, Tay Za accompanied top brass on overseas trips to buy helicopters, according to Irrawaddy, a respected news magazine run by Myanmar exiles in neighboring Thailand.

Image: Myanmar protest
AP file
Buddhist monks march Sept. 24 in Yangon, Myanmar, in one of the series of protests that led to a government crackdown.
His Myanmar Avia Export is the country's sole representative of Russia's Export Military Industrial Group and of the Russian helicopter manufacturer Rostvertol, the magazine said. Analysts and diplomats said Tay Za played a key role in buying MiG-29 fighter jets and Mi-17 helicopters last year from Moscow.

His close personal relationship with Than Shwe and his family have been one of the hottest topics in Myanmar's rumor mill.

"He knows how to take care of people, influential people. That's his secret to such a fast rise to such a prominent position," said Irrawaddy editor Aung Zaw.

Tay Za has also hired children of senior military officials, among them Gen. Shwe Mann's son, Aung Thet Mann, who is on Htoo's board of directors.

Singapore base
Some of his companies are based in Singapore, where he owns luxury apartments and does his banking. He is often seen shopping in that island republic's luxury malls.

While some think the U.S. sanctions may weaken the junta, human rights activists say they will accomplish little without the help of Asian countries.

Mathieson said the sanctions would work only with follow-up measures against Tay Za. "It could be a significant move if they could start identifying the full extent of his financial network and his business empire and put pressure on the right spots," he said.

Some suggest assessments of Tay Za's influence may be exaggerated and could divert attention from lesser-known figures who prop up the regime's finances.

Also on the U.S. blacklist are Htay Myint of the Yuzana Co. and Khin Shwe, president of Zay Gabar Co. But editor Aung Zaw said there are many more not yet on the radar of the U.S. and the European Union, which has also imposed some sanctions.

Some analysts say that for all the outward glitz — Ferrari, Lamborghini and a luxury mansion in Yangon — Tay Za may be less a tycoon than a business agent for Than Shwe's family.

His airline, Air Bagan, is said to be in financial trouble. Irrawaddy says his love of gambling hasn't helped either, and he may be too deeply invested in the first family for his own good. One top junta man who reportedly doesn't see eye-to-eye with him is Maung Aye, the army commander in chief.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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