Myanmar cyclone: Drug lord crony will profit

But, like every other drug lord who has lasted long enough to salt his gains into legal trades, the secret of his success is not his guns or cunning, but his connections.

Protected by his friends in Burma’s military junta, the man once known as the “Godfather of Heroin” is today among the country’s most successful businessmen, his fingers in everything from jade and teak to construction and luxury hotels.(Steven Law:below)

Tun Myint Naing

Now, though, he looks set to add another potentially lucrative sideline to his vast portfolio – helping Burma to rebuild itself after this month’s devastating cyclone.

The 73-year-old, once blamed for single-handedly flooding America’s streets with heroin, is among dozens of regime “cronies” given government contracts to reconstruct the towns and villages of the storm-hit Irrawaddy Delta – deals likely to earn them millions of dollars in commissions from a fund financed mainly by aid from foreign governments.

With an estimated 134,000 dead in the cyclone and 2.5 million homeless, Burma’s generals have faced savage criticism for dragging their feet over emergency relief – their restrictions on foreign aid workers entering were lifted only on Friday.

But while junta officials have been slow to set up refugee camps and clinics, they have been much quicker to award contracts for reconstruction to the small but vastly wealthy clique of business tycoons who still do business with the regime.

Men like Mr Lo will be watching closely today as foreign diplomats and aid agencies meet in Rangoon for a major donors’ conference at which the regime will appeal for $11 billion in reconstruction funds.

Critics fear much of it will end up lining the pockets of the generals and their cronies, the military men disbursing generous contracts to their business friends and taking kickbacks in return.

“This donors’ conference will be a cash cow,” said Mark Farmaner, the director of the human rights group Burma Campaign UK.

“The generals are giving out contracts to their cronies to assist in the reconstruction, but much of it will disappear in bribes. I am sure that is one reason why they have now decided to let in foreign aid workers: they have realised that cheque-books may start opening.”

About 30 countries are expected to be represented at the donors’ conference, although most Western nations – including Britain – are unlikely to hand over cash unless it is disbursed by international bodies such as the United Nations.

Neighbouring Asian governments, however, which have been less critical of Burma, are unlikely to impose such conditions. And with most foreign companies unwilling to do business there on ethical grounds, even deals administered by outside aid agencies are likely to involve sub-contracting to local firms, most of which are owned by the country’s business oligarchy.

Mr Lo’s Asia World Company, which is run today by his son, US-educated Steven Law, is among 43 companies already earmarked for reconstruction contracts, according to Burma’s state-run press. Many firms are understood to be owned by friends or relations of the generals, whose social lives revolve around Rangoon’s golf courses.

Few, though, epitomise Burma’s crony capitalism as closely as Mr Lo, who, along with his son, was recently put on a US sanctions list, preventing them doing business with America or travelling there.

Announcing the move three months ago, Stuart Levy of the Treasury Department said: “Unless the junta in Burma halts the violent suppression of its peoples, we will target those like Steven Law who profit corruptly.”

Mr Lo’s involvement in the drug trade goes back nearly half a century to when he was an insurgent in Burma’s Shan State, which once rivalled Afghanistan for its opium harvests.

Thanks to help in organising a ceasefire with separatists, junta leaders turned a blind eye to his trafficking. By the 1990s he had allegedly become boss of one of the most formidable armed smuggling outfits on the planet, before going into legitimate business as Asia World.

In a rare New York Times interview in 1998, he spoke openly of his days organising opium-laden mule caravans, but claimed he had ceased drug trafficking in the 1970s. None the less, today his riches have brought his family as close as anybody gets to Burma’s hermit rulers.

A single call from either Mr Lo or his son, it is said, is all that is needed for an audience with a cabinet member.

Asia World was involved in building Burma’s new capital, Naypyidaw, including junta leader Than Shwe’s house. Mr Lo is also said to have organised the catering for Than Shwe’s daughter Thandar’s wedding , where she appeared wearing seven diamond-encrusted necklaces and where guests enjoyed a five-tiered wedding cake and gallons of champagne.

Video footage of the party was leaked on to the internet, confirming for many ordinary Burmese how their rulers lived a life of luxury while they struggled to feed themselves.

Additional reporting by Colin Hinshelwood in Thailand

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