The economic ventures of the Kayin State Border Guard Force have gained notoriety, but the group insists its businesses benefit the Karen people.
By NAW BETTY HAN | FRONTIER
COLONEL Saw Min Min Oo is the managing director of Chit Linn Myaing Co Ltd, a company owned by the Kayin Border Guard Force that oversees a growing stable of lucrative businesses. The ethnic Karen armed group’s readiness to partner with shadowy Chinese investors, and to undertake projects with seemingly little regard for Myanmar law, is deeply controversial. Its most audacious venture so far is the vast “new city” project next to the Kayin BGF’s headquarters of Shwe Kokko Myaing in Kayin State’s Myawaddy Township, popularly dubbed as a “Chinatown” because of the largely Chinese financing and workforce.
However, Min Min Oo insisted that the profits from these ventures don’t only accrue to the armed group, which is aligned to the Tatmadaw, but are shared with “the residents of our Karen land”.
Min Min Oo was a 55-year-old battalion commander in the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army nine years ago when it became a Border Guard Force under Tatmadaw command and he was appointed to run Chit Linn Myaing. The company’s board of directors is made up of officers from the BGF, he said.
When Frontier met Min Min Oo briefly in Yangon in October, he was dressed casually in a Karen blue-and-red longyi. He spoke limited Burmese, and a later phone interview with him was done mostly in the S’gaw Karen language.
The Kayin BGF, whose supreme commander is Colonel Saw Chit Thu, has about 6,000 troops and was formed in August 2010 with 12 battalions from the DKBA and one battalion from the Haungtharaw-based Karen Peace Front. It is one of several BGFs in borderland areas of Myanmar, which were formed at that time out of ethnic armed factions that had come to ally themselves with the Tatmadaw.
The DKBA itself was formed in 1994 out of a disaffected, majority-Buddhist faction of the Karen National Union, which has been in rebellion against the central government since 1949. The DKBA joined forces with the Tatmadaw and attacked their former Karen revolutionary comrades, carving out a swathe of territory and a series of lucrative border-crossing points for illicit trade that were previously under KNU control.
The military government not only allowed the DKBA to maintain control of its border enclave, and the illicit money-making opportunities that came with it, but also encouraged the group to expand its business activity into the formal economy. Its business empire has grown ever since, and even includes a resort and amusement park on the outskirts of Hpa-an, the Kayin State capital, where the city’s youth can go to amuse themselves.
‘It is time to do business’
Min Min Oo said that he and his comrades were doing more to help the Karen people through their current business dealings than when they were foot soldiers of the KNU.
“When we served with the Karen National Union, we didn’t know anything and had to wait for directions from our commanders,” he said. “If we were ordered to bomb roads and bridges used by the Tatmadaw, we just did it, but it was the people who suffered most.”
“Now, it is time to do business and benefit our Karen people and Karen land,” Min Min Oo said.
The DKBA’s transformation to a BGF helped Chit Linn Myaing expand and it became involved in infrastructure projects in Kayin, including building public hospitals, bridges and administrative buildings.
Min Min Oo said the Buddhist monk U Thuzana bestowed the name Chit Linn Myaing, meaning “jungle of bright love”, when the company was first registered in 2005. “We use this name on every one of our businesses,” he said. The monk, who was also known as the Myaing Gyi Ngu Sayadaw, helped forge the DKBA back in 1994 by encouraging some of the Buddhist rank-and-file of the KNU to mutiny against their Christian commanders. He remained the armed group’s chief religious authority till his death in October 2018.
When the company was registered on November 21, 2005, it was as the Chit Linn Myaing Mining and Industry Co Ltd. Since then, it has been re-registered under different names, alongside a number of subsidiaries involved in different sectors, but all have contained the words “Chit Linn Myaing”. Many of the smaller companies were dissolved after the completion of a single project, Min Min Oo said, adding, “All of the companies are under the management of the same board of directors, but with different executive officers.”
There are five companies whose names include the words “Chit Linn Myaing”, in Roman and Burmese letters, listed on Myanmar’s online company registry, which is maintained by the Directorate of Investment and Company Administration. These are Chit Linn Mying [sic] Co Ltd, Chit Linn Myaing Energy Co Ltd, Chit Linn Myaing Mining & Industry Co Ltd, Chit Linn Myaing Toyota Co Ltd and Chit Linn Myaing Travel & Tours Co Ltd. Min Min Oo is listed among the directors for all of these companies. Chit Linn Mying, registered in “2005-6”, appears to be the original company, but its registration has lapsed; a message on the website says, “This company will be striking off soon”, leaving its status as a holding company vague.
Min Min Oo said that although Chit Thu headed the BGF in his capacity as its general secretary, his role with Chit Linn Myaing was that of a consultant. He is not listed among the directors of any of the companies in the online company registry.
“He was the president of Chit Linn Myaing when the company was established in 2005 but stepped down from the company’s management a year later,” Min Min Oo explained.
New cities, new highways
The Shwe Kokko “new city” project, the BGF’s biggest venture to date, is a partnership between the BGF and Yatai International Holdings Group, which describes itself as being Bangkok-based and Hong Kong-registered. The joint venture vehicle, Myanmar Yatai International Holding Co Ltd, entered Myanmar’s company registry in February 2017. The Kayin BGF holds a 20 percent stake in the company, and Min Min Oo is listed as one of the four directors; the others represent Yatai International.
Min Min Oo said it was the first project in which Chit Linn Myaing has formed an official joint venture with a foreign company.
The new city is being developed next to the BGF’s headquarters by a bend in the Thaung Yin (or Moei) River that separates Myanmar from Thailand, about 16 kilometres north of the town of Myawaddy. According to a planning proposal seen by Frontier, it will include an airport, luxury housing, a 1,200-room hotel, casinos, supermarkets, an industrial zone and logistics depots. The proposal says it will cover nearly 73,000 hectares (180,000 acres) and require an investment of US$15 billion. However, the only thing that has been approved by the government is the building of 59 luxury villas on 10.3ha for $22.5 million, which received a permit from the Myanmar Investment Commission in July 2018. However, when Frontier visited in July, construction work was extending well beyond these parameters.
Before the Shwe Kokko new city project, the BGF drew adverse media attention for its role in the construction of a highway in Kayin State between Eaindu in Hpa-an Township and Kawkareik Township that was financed by the Asian Development Bank. Residents of a village next to Mount Lun Nya, which is close to Hpa-an, protested in late 2017 against the mountain being mined for limestone used on the highway. The limestone quarry, which the villagers said was ruining the local environment, was licensed to Chit Linn Myaing Toyota. The ABD instructed the Chinese highway contractor to stop using the quarry in December of that year, after Frontier published an article earlier that month, “An army, a mountain and the ADB”, detailing the villagers’ opposition.
Also controversial is a string of casinos that have sprung up in recent years along the banks of the Thaung Yin River just north of Myawaddy. Several of these casinos are firmly within BGF-controlled territory. Asked about these, Min Min Oo responded flatly that currently there were “no casino businesses under the management of the BGF”.
At celebrations marking the ninth anniversary of the BGF, held on August 20 this year in Shwe Kokko, Chit Thu said the BGF was focused on both peace and development. His speech drew attention to the Chinese-financed mega project located close by.
“We must make progress based on peace,” he told his audience, adding that the BGF was developing the “small town” of Shwe Kokko for the benefit of the Karen people. “We ask you all to watch our small town develop as it makes progress with increased investment.”
“We are ready to protect the Karen people and the [Kayin] state, to support development and to stand firmly with the people,” Chit Thu declared.
Cable cars and resorts
Min Min Oo said “no other investors” were involved in the Chit Thu Myaing Resort and Zwekabin cable car projects in Hpa-an Township. For these ventures, he said Chit Linn Myaing had taken out loans from Myanmar Oriental Bank, CB Bank and KBZ Bank.
The cable car project is being developed on about five hectares of forest land endowed to the Buddhist monastery at Mt Zwekabin, the sheer limestone mountain that dominates the landscape around Hpa-an and is one of Kayin’s principal tourist attractions. The presiding monk, the Zwekabin Sayadaw, approved the allocation of this land and is close to both Chit Thu and Min Min Oo. A man employed at Zwekabin who asked not to be named told Frontier that Chit Thu funded the steps that visitors use to climb the mountain.
Min Min Oo would not disclose how much CB and KBZ banks had lent to the company, but said that Myanmar Oriental Bank had provided a K7 billion ($4.6 million) loan for the cable car project, whose estimated total cost is $120 million. Work on the project began in 2016 and it is expected to be up and running in May next year, allowing visitors to skip the sweaty climb on Mt Zwekabin and glide to the top for K5,000.
“The project is based on plans agreed by the Zwekabin mountain cable car implementing committee in August 2013,” he said, referring to a committee made up by monks and local residents, which discussed the project with the Kayin State Chief Minister Nang Khin Htwe Myint in April 2016. “We got the permission as soon as we reported to the Kayin government about our project,” he added.
Myanmar Oriental Bank has lent K3 billion ($2 million) for the resort development, which includes an amusement park and is sited on 100 acres of land about 10km south of the centre of Hpa-an. Its name, Chit Thu Myaing, means “lovers’ jungle”. The amusement park opened to the public in 2016 and the resort, which will feature upscale hotel rooms, is still under construction, with an official opening planned for December 2020.
The park has a whimsical design, with fake windmills painted in bright primary colours, funfair rides and statues ranging from a life-sized Tyrannosaurus Rex to colossal Transformer action figures. Visitors can ride on a lake with jet skis, shoot rifles in an indoor range and get lost in a hedge maze. When Frontier visited in July, the visitors were outnumbered by the labourers working on ambitious new features, such as a leisure garden inspired by the Gardens by the Bay in Singapore.
One of the men doing the planting for the garden, a Karen man called Saw Lin Aung, said the plants and the materials of the buildings had all been imported from Thailand.
Min Min Oo said the initial plan devised in 2015 was for a big restaurant set in a large amusement park, but then BGF chief Chit Thu had the idea of developing a resort too.
“When he discussed his proposal for the resort, our board of directors backed it because we thought it was a great idea,” Min Min Oo said.