In a league of their own, Myanmar’s “crony capitalists” cry foul

April 18, 2012

Yangon Utd chairman Pye Phyo Tayza watching his team (REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun)

By Andrew R.C. Marshall

A relaxation of media controls is among the many surprising reforms Myanmar has seen over the past year. Yet critical reports about the tycoons who got rich under the former military junta are still routinely cut by government censors, as I discovered while co-writing our Special Report on Myanmar Inc with Jason Szep.

“It hasn’t been easy for local papers to write about the cronies and how they got rich,” said Thiha Saw, a veteran journalist who edits the business monthly Myanma Dana.

That might be changing. The March 13 edition of True News, a Yangon weekly, ran an unflattering photo of Max Myanmar CEO Zaw Zaw with another tycoon — Sai Sam Htun, of beverage company Loi Hein — handing wads of cash to three pretty young women. “This is the very first time such a story has appeared in a weekly newspaper,” said editor Thiha Saw. “The censorship board seems to be getting quite relaxed.”

As Zaw Zaw explained to the website Soccer Myanmar, the three women — all actresses or singers — were merely being rewarded for performing at a party for Yadanarbon Football Club, which Sai Sam Htun owns. “We just gave them pocket money,” Sai Sam Htun told me.

With journalists growing bolder and censors less sympathetic, Myanmar’s tycoons still have another way of making friends and (one day) money: their football clubs. Sai Sam Htun’s Yadanarbon F.C. competes in a three-year-old national league with Kanbawza F.C. (owned by KBZ Group’s media-shy multimillionaire Aung Ko Win) and Yangon United (owned by Lamborghini-owning crony Tay Za).

Yangon United’s chairman is Tay Za’s oldest son, Pye Phyo Tayza. In an interview with Jason, he denied that former dictator Than Shwe had ordered the tycoons to create the league to satisfy the whims of a soccer-loving grandson.

Right now Myanmar’s football clubs are loss-making ventures with few supporters. But that might be changing too. Teams in neighboring Thailand are attracting foreign players, big bucks and loyal fan-bases. That last factor could work wonders for elitist tycoons eager to repair their popular image. “You know how cricket is for England, football is for us,” said Pye Phyo Tayza.

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  • About Andrew

    "I am Southeast Asia Special Correspondent for Reuters and winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in International Reporting. I have lived in and reported from Asia for 20 years. I am the author of The Trouser People, a political travelogue about Myanmar and football, and co-author of The Cult at the End of the World, about Japan’s Aum Supreme Truth Cult and high-tech terrorism."
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