Tuesday, July 25, 2017

USDP lawmaker dies in Singapore

Notorious ruling party strongman, U Aung Thaung passed away yesterday morning at a hospital in Singapore where he was being treated for a cerebral haemorrhage suffered on July 8. He was 74, according to government records.

Former USDP lawmaker and Minister of Industry U Aung Thaung speaks at a press conference. (Staff/The Myanmar Times)Former USDP lawmaker and Minister of Industry U Aung Thaung speaks at a press conference. (Staff/The Myanmar Times)

A fellow senior official of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) told The Myanmar Times that the body was expected to be transferred from Singapore to Yangon yesterday, though it had not arrived as of press time.

“The family will cremate his body in Yangon and they will entomb his burial urn beside his wife’s brick tomb in the monastery at Taung Tha township [Mandalay],” the lawmaker said. “I’m very upset about losing him.”

The former USDP secretary was rushed to the Nay Pyi Taw hospital after suffering dizziness that progressed to unconsciousness around midnight on July 8. Neurosurgeons were flown in from Yangon overnight, but as his condition persisted, his family chartered a flight to Singapore.

To commemorate the lawmaker, Pyidaungsu Hluttaw held two minutes of silence yesterday and recorded his passing “with deep sorrow” in the session’s minutes.

Few members of parliament were willing to comment about their deceased colleague when contacted by The Myanmar Times yesterday however.

One of the few to speak up, Daw Khin San Hlaing, an opposition National League for Democracy lawmaker who served with U Aung Thaung on the Banks and Monetary Development Committee, noted the infamous hardliner had showed an inclination for reform before his passing.

“Some instances showed that the chairman was headed toward reform,” she said.

Her speculation about the controversial, long-time NLD nemesis is not a common one however, especially since he was believed to have orchestrated a 2003 attack on an NLD convoy, which included party leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Several party members in the entourage were killed during the attack.

Rumored to be among the wealthiest men in Myanmar, U Aung Thaung was widely perceived as skipping the wave of democratic reforms jumped at by many of his ruling party colleagues. Instead, the retired colonel was known as steadfast member of the former junta’s innermost circle.

The Mandalay-born former Pyithu Hluttaw representative graduated from Mandalay University in 1964. He joined the military and climbed the ranks to colonel, before becoming a key figure in former military dictator Than Shwe’s regime.

Under the military regime, known as the State Peace and Development Council, U Aung Thaung served as the Ministry of Industry from 1997 to 2011. According to numerous Wikileaks cables, he used the position to consolidate construction and trade contracts within the military regime’s network using a system of “economic patronage”. He and two of his sons, U Nay Aung and U Pyi Aung - referred to in the leaked embassy cables as Hummer driving and jade extracting “rising cronies” who used “their family connections and close ties to the regime to amass great wealth”. The US officials recommended sanctioning the family, but despite the allegations, his sons were never blacklisted.

U Aung Thaung was put on the US Sanctions list in October 2014 however, for allegedly “intentionally undermining the positive political and economic transition in Burma” and facilitating “repression and dictatorship”.

Early on, U Aung Thaung established he was not a fan of the opposition NLD. According to the leaked cables he supported groups of plain-clothed militias who opposed and even attacked protesters in the hopes of inciting a counterattack from the activists that would serve as a pretext for their arrest.

“The recruits are primarily unemployed vagrants and were trained in a military training camp in Hlegu Township,” a May 2007 cable said.

These paramilitary militias have also been accused of stoking anti-Muslim riots in Myitkyina in March 2013, but U Aung Thaung repeatedly denied any involvement in the communal strife.

The powerful minister was also one of President U Thein Sein’s “special liaisons” to the ethnic groups, and led negotiations to secure ceasefire agreements with the Shan, the Kachin, the Kayin and the Wa.

It was unclear whether U Aung Thaung planned to stand for election this year, U Aung Thein Linn, a fellow senior member of the USDP and former Yangon Mayor, now holds the Pyithu Hluttaw seat.

With additional reporting by Laignee Barron