When Myanmar’s military dictatorship imprisoned the country’s democratically elected leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, earlier this month, one of the ramifications was the trading halt on the Australian Stock Exchange of a small Australian listed mining company, Myanmar Metals.
The company’s key asset – a silver and lead mine in the war-torn Shan state that was once touted as the greatest deposit in the British Empire – was suddenly facing a surge in local violence and ongoing political uncertainty, the company said in a statement to investors. The ministers overseeing mining in the country had changed and there was the possibility of renewed international sanctions.
But what the Perth based company did not mention was corporate links that trace back to a firm accused of enriching the Myanmar junta and of being run by a drug kingpin known as the “Godfather of Heroin”. These ties themselves are landing Myanmar Metals at the centre of a fresh sanctions debate.
Myanmar Metals’ prized asset is the Bawdwin mine. Before World War II it was one of the biggest in the world. Former US president Herbert Hoover made his fortune there.
The mine is, according to company statements, “critical to the future of an emergent nation” and “the enrichment of the lives of people in Shan state”. It has touted the involvement of famed Australian rich-lister and prospector Mark Creasy.
But since 2009, the Bawdwin concession has been owned by Win Myint Mo Industries Co. Ltd (WMM). It has been dealing with the Australian company, Myanmar Metals, since early 2017, and the two companies later formed a joint venture to reopen the mine.
Just months before it went into business with the Australian company, WMM emerged out of a different company, infrastructure giant Asia World. Asia World’s founder Lo Hsing Han, and his son, Asia World chief executive Steven Law, faced credible allegations in 2011 and again in 2019 of previous involvement in organised crime and shady dealings with Myanmar’s military, which is known as Tatmadaw.
As recently as 2019, the United Nations Independent Fact Finding Mission on Myanmar labelled Asia World as “among the largest crony companies” in bed with the military.
Lo Hsing Han was also once Myanmar’s most infamous drug baron. Prior to his death in 2013, he built a fortune by overseeing a militia that sold heroin, earning the nickname the “Godfather of Heroin”.
His son Steven Law still runs Asia World. The demerger which spawned WMM occurred, according to one business figure who has dealt extensively with WMM, because of Asia World’s suspect historical reputation.
Company filings reviewed by The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald reveal that WMM is run by two businessmen. One of them, U Maung Kyay, helped found Asia World alongside Lo “Godfather of Heroin” Hsing Han. The second WMM director, U Than Myint, was an Asia World director for 20 years.
Both Kyay and Myint are now fellow directors in the Bawdwin mine joint-venture company alongside Myanmar Metal’s chief executive John Lamb, a former director of the Tasmanian Minerals Council, and several other Australian businessmen. Mr Lamb declined to comment for this article but in a recent statement to the ASX said the company was “committed to Myanmar and the Bawdwin project”.
WMM no longer has any formal ties to Asia World and no allegations have been made directly against WMM’s directors Kyay or Myint or the firm itself. But their CVs show that both worked for Asia World in senior positions when the US Treasury department accused the firm of providing “critical support to the Burmese [military] regime” and receiving “numerous lucrative government concessions, including the construction of ports, highways and government facilities”.
Kyay and Myint are no stranger to sanctions. Asia World and Steven Law were placed on the US government’s sanctions list in 2011 over Law and his father’s alleged links to drug trafficking and military corruption. These sanctions were lifted in October 2016.
The recent coup in Myanmar has thrown the spotlight firmly back on the military’s economic interests, which in turn has prompted human rights organisations to question if WMM is truly removed from the documented military ties of Asia World.
Clancy Moore, an advocate who works with several Myanmar NGOs and also heads the Australian arm of the anti-corruption NGO Publish What You Pay, said given the overlap between WMM and former senior Asia World personnel, Australian investors should have no confidence that WMM isn’t simply Asia World by another name.
Mr Moore said the Australian government should support targeted sanctions against the Myanmar military and their business interests and review DFAT’s support for the Bawdwin mine due to the opaque ownership of the project.
Mr Moore also warned that if the Bawdwin mine becomes operational, a profit sharing agreement with the Myanmar government could directly benefit the military coup plotters.
“Myanmar’s natural resource wealth should benefit its citizens, not military generals and Myanmar Metals should suspend operations or risk paying millions of dollars into the pockets of the military,” Mr Moore said.
He said other Australian companies, including Australian energy giant Woodside, should also urgently suspend their operations in Myanmar. Earlier this month, Woodside’s outgoing chief Peter Coleman said it would continue operating because it was “very early days in the coup, the military has committed to free and fair elections in 12 months”.
The Biden administration has so far opted only to sanction certain military figures, although human rights groups are calling on the US and Australian governments to cast a wider net.
The existing targeted US sanction may not dampen the flow of funds to military chiefs, given experts believe “crony” companies still enrich generals via opaque commercial arrangement. The anti-corruption NGO Global Witness has accused “military elites, drug lords and their cronies” of controlling Myanmar’s booming jade industry.
Financial backers of Myanmar Metals, who were not authorised to speak publicly on behalf of the company, said the company was well aware of the longstanding ties between Asia World and its local partners but that WMM had assured the firm such ties were historical and this had been verified by due diligence undertaken by a local law firm.
The company had also signed on to international frameworks to guard against corruption and human rights abuses, they said.
“The best thing we can do is to go in with eyes wide open and knowing that our project could be a boon for ordinary Myanmar citizens,” a company source said.
The company’s backers also said that sanctions that barred Myanmar Metals from partnering with WMM would likely lead to a Chinese firm taking the Australian miners’ place.
Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne, along with her American counterpart Tony Blinken, are both acutely aware that sanctions that increase Beijing’s already significant influence in Myanmar may be counter-productive to ongoing efforts to pressure the military to back down.
Senator Payne, who has described the coup as “deeply concerning,” has declined to be drawn on whether Australia would impose sanctions against Myanmar, although she said sanctions were under review.
Australia is also reviewing its aid programs and military cooperation with Myanmar.
Another NGO, the Myanmar Alliance for Transparency and Accountability, is calling on Australian companies already operating in Myanmar to place revenue payments into “protected accounts” until democracy returns or to stall ongoing exploration.