No sooner had the Burmese military attempted to convince the world it was too poor to undertake a nuclear programme than its richest man emerges from the shadows to brag about the incredible fortunes he, the generals and local and Chinese businessmen have amassed over the years.
Tay Za is a 47-year-old billionaire — and he wants the West to know it.
He recently told an Italian journalist in his first interview with the foreign press: ‘I want it to be known once and for all that I am the wealthiest man in Burma. Too many Chinese have taken our citizenship and are now boasting they are the richest. But they're not pure Burmese.’
In a fantastic interview with Raimondo Butrini and published in La Republica, Tay Za did anything but cry poor from a snakeskin sofa with armrests shaped of enormous golden conch shells in a plush Rangoon mansion.
The Burmese businessman heads a list of 3,000 people with sanctions levelled against them, yet despite this runs a network of companies with an estimated turnover of about $500 million a year, with interests that include aviation and gem stones.
‘My holdings show that actually your Western sanctions don't bother me,’ he said.
‘In fact, they suit me fine, and that goes for everyone else on your black list, including the generals themselves. But I don't like seeing our economy depending on Chinese trade alone.
‘They have the money and can afford everything, even the jade and precious stones from my mines. Everyone knows that China has enormous interests here. The Chinese need a secure trade route for their goods from the Middle East and Africa without using the Straits of Malacca, which are controlled by the US.
‘That's why they're building huge ports along our western coast, and railways across the country up to Kunming, behind their frontier. Our gas goes up there too, through hundreds of miles of pipeline.’
The interview was far reaching and offered some rare insights into the running of the country. Asked if the Burmese generals fear Chinese control, he responded:
‘You can be sure of that. But people abroad don't seem to realize that sanctions are bound to thrust us into the arms of Beijing in the end. Just the other day, China offered a loan of $30 billion, which the government hasn't yet accepted, but certainly will soon.
‘In exchange, they will obviously get more concessions. All this is going on because you are following the moral principles of (former US president) George Bush, who will go down in history as America's worst ever president for the mess he made in Iraq and its consequences.’
Tay Za also had some fair points about hypocrisy and Western sanctions: ‘China is always being accused of violating human rights, but where are the sanctions against them? As for the champions of these sanctions, why do America and France let Chevron and Total operate here with no restrictions whatsoever? They're the hypocrites, moralizing while they knowingly swell their government coffers, not China, India, Thailand, Singapore and Korea.’
However, he also made a somewhat dubious point, saying: ‘You should realize that the real victims of your measures against us here are the poor, who live hand to mouth.’
It’s a hard line to swallow given his bragging rights are based on how so few have attained such great wealth in a country of so many poor. It also makes a mockery of claims by Burma’s Vice President Tin Aung Myint Oo, who recently told US Sen. John McCain during his tour there to assess the country’s changing politics that Burma isn’t wealthy enough to acquire nuclear weapons.