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ICC Note:
Following modest political and economic reforms, an international race has developed between competing economic powers to land licensing rights and development opportunities in Burma. Like so many prior reintroductions of pariah states to the international community, the end game of it all seems not be reform, but money. As companies from every major developed country stand in line for their ticket into the formerly reclusive Southeast Asian nation, Burma sports its own economic elites as well, Zaw Zaw foremost among them. An admittedly open business partner to the former military junta that dictatorially ruled the nation for some five decades, Zaw Zaw sees the alleged “opening-up” of the Burmese regime as an economic endeavor, one in which his company, the Max Burma Group, looks to double its profits. And so, despite elementary reforms made by the Burmese state, the nation appears on a path to sustain the old economic and political order at the exploitation and expense of the Burmese people. Sadly, talk of a new Burma seems little more than preemptive rhetoric, totally negligent of continued human rights abuses and egregious violations of religious freedom, and wholly concerned with lining the pockets of the established economic elite.
06/04/2013 Burma (Irrawaddy) — Zaw Zaw, one of Burma’s most successful and notorious businessmen, likes to pick his way at odd hours around the hulking skeleton of his new hotel, rising beside Rangoon’s main airport road.
The 366-room Novotel holds a story of how one man, who remembers being too poor to afford a soccer ball, built an empire by befriending the military government in what was one of the most oppressive and isolated countries on earth; and how, as Burma opens up, he is quickly breaking with the past to embrace a prosperous, cosmopolitan future in which one thing seems certain: He will not lose.
“I am friends with everybody,” Zaw Zaw says, a big smile spreading across his youthful face.
The 45-year-old tycoon, who built his fortune capitalizing on Burma’s old networks of patronage and power, has demonstrated an agility in reconfiguring his business — and image — to suit a new global audience, and at a speed few have matched.
As the country emerges from a half century of military rule, his Max Burma Group is on track to more than double revenues, according to data he has not made public before.
His ability to ride the waves of change suggests that the old economic order may not be overturned as Burma opens its markets and deepens its embrace of democracy.
Just as the former military leaders have taken off their uniforms to refashion themselves as civilian lawmakers and bureaucrats, many of Burma’s dozen or so economic giants are rebranding themselves as entrepreneurs and working hard to take the stink out of the word “crony.”
Zaw Zaw, widely regarded as among the cleanest of the bunch, has moved faster — and more publicly — than his peers to take advantage of Burma’s reintegration with the global economy.
Though he remains on a US blacklist that bans American companies from doing business with friends of the old regime, the Max Burma Group is one of the nation’s most successful conglomerates, employing 11,000 people in sectors from hotels and banking to cement and construction.
France’s Accor Group has a deal with him to manage the Novotel in Rangoon and an MGallery hotel in Naypyitaw, the capital. Zaw Zaw says he is pursuing a joint venture with a Thai cement company, and trying to get his Ayeyarwady Bank in shape so he can bring in a foreign partner. He also made a bold effort to list his energy subsidiary on the Singapore Stock Exchange, though that was rejected in April over lingering concerns about his past.
Zaw Zaw acknowledges being friendly with the old military regime, arguing that there was no other way to succeed. “Only the government has projects,” he says. “If I don’t do projects with them, who will I do projects with?”
His only crime as he sees it? “In this poor country, I have become rich.”

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