In Pictures: Myanmar's 'crony capitalists'

In a new era of foreign investment, analysts are split on what role elites connected to the military junta should play.


For much of the world, Myanmar is considered to be in the process of transforming from pariah to pet project.

Following half a century of Western isolation, Myanmar voted in a government of retired generals two years ago, heralding radical economic and political reforms. 

Most observers agree the government is creeping towards more transparent and democratic rule, but there remains a debate of whether Western economic sanctions helped or hindered the reform and whether outstanding sanctions are an effective diplomatic tool. 

In 2010, the government ended pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi's house arrest and began releasing hundreds of political prisoners.

As a result, the West suspended or lifted most of their trade and economic sanctions, opening the door to bargain-hunting frontier investors. 

Still, the US maintains sanctions against a number of favoured Myanmar tycoons who allegedly grew rich through corruption and their close ties to the old regime. 

In December the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) agreed to pay US authorities $133m to settle sanctions violations in four countries including Myanmar, where it processed 46 wire transfers totalling around $376,000. 

As the political and economic landscape shifts, the cronies have tried to rebrand themselves as potential local partners for foreign businesses. 

Human rights groups argue the US needs to maintain pressure against the Myanmar government to ensure the reformers don't backslide. 

"Despite holding by-elections and taking other positive steps, the government has yet to institute the reforms necessary to move Burma toward democracy, and basic political power remains with the military," New York-based Human Rights Watch said in an open letter to President Obama in November. "It is imperative for the United States to retain its leverage until real reform occurs." 

But others say the sanctions were a knee-jerk moral response to the cruelty and indifference of the Myanmar state towards its citizens, and not an effective use of the diplomatic toolbox. 

They say the real trigger of reform in Myanmar was an internal recognition that the era of superstitious and paranoid governance was outdated, combined with fears of encroaching economic domination by resource-hungry China. 

The remaining sanctions, the pragmatists argue, could be retarding economic growth and job creation because those with a murky history also have much-needed capital and market knowledge. 

"Sanctions were ineffective at best, and counterproductive at worst," says Richard Horsey, a political analyst. "The cronies made their millions at the expense of the country but, putting aside the moral argument, they're now well-placed to help the economy grow. Some of the cronies are the biggest tax-payers in the country." 

Corruption and sanctions are abstract concepts rarely captured visually, but Al Jazeera attempted to meet some of the alleged crony capitalists.