Austrian embassy’s promoting defense firm in Burma

Chiang Mai (Mizzima) – NLD cofounder Win Tin told Mizzima that he found it ‘very disturbing’ that the Austrian ambassador to Burma and Thailand Dr Johannes Peterlik accompanied representatives of an Austrian defence firm as part of a recent trade and investment delegation visit to Rangoon.

NLD senior leader Win Tin said the business delegation to Burma led by the Austrian embassy was inappropriate under EU guidelines. Photo: MizzimaNLD senior leader Win Tin said the business delegation to Burma led by the Austrian embassy was inappropriate under EU guidelines. Photo: Mizzima

The March 16-18 trade delegation visit was organized by the commercial attachés at the Austrian Embassy in Bangkok and the Austrian Economic Chamber of Commerce. A PowerPoint presentation prepared by the delegation, whichMizzima has obtained, reveals that at least 19 firms were represented including P & P Consulting, a self-described defense and security consulting firm, two of Austria’s leading banks and Swarovski, described in the presentation as ‘one of the world’s leading producers of cut crystal, genuine gemstones and created stones’.

Win Tin said he was particularly concerned by the inclusion of a defense firm in the delegation and called for the EU to ‘investigate these matters and explain to the public this kind of action’.

There is little publicly available information about P&P Consulting. The firm’s website is not working presently and calls by Mizzima to P&P’s telephone number listed on the Website of the Austrian Foreign Trade Promotion Organization were not returned.  Austrian newspaper reports show that the firm’s owner is the organization’s primary employee, arms dealer Alfred Plattner.

In 2007, Plattner was asked to appear before an Austrian parliamentary inquiry investigating secret payments his business partner, jet fighter lobbyist Erhard Steininger, made to the wife of the head of the Austrian air force.  The Austrian inquiry revealed that in 2002 Plattner and P&P received Euros 200,000 from Steininger for lobbying work and that P&P had the same address as an Austrian pizzeria, whose owner was also under scrutiny for his association with Steininger.

Win Tin told Mizzima he was concerned other European defense firms will follow P&P’s lead and send delegations to Burma. The close ally of Aung San Suu Kyi said he was extremely disappointed that the Austrian government assisted P&P in going to Burma.  In addition to Ambassador Peterlik, two other diplomats from the Austrian Embassy in Bangkok accompanied the delegation to Rangoon, Dr. Gustav Gressel, the commercial attaché, and Gerhard Schlattl, the commercial counselor.

‘Austria is one of the EU members and the EU still has sanctions in place on Burma’, said Win Tin, a veteran political prisoner.  ‘So to send an Austrian trade delegation to Burma headed by the Austrian ambassador, we don’t understand how it could happen because really it’s a violation of EU sanctions on Burma’.

In a statement sent to Mizzima, Peter Launsky-Tiefenthal, a spokesman for the Austrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, denied that the delegation, which he termed an ‘economic fact finding trip’, violated EU sanctions.

‘There are no broad EU trade or investment sanctions on Burma/Myanmar, but sectoral prohibitions which Austria fully supports––in line with respective EU sanctions’.

Launsky-Tiefenthal’s statement also claimed that the delegation’s trip consisted of ‘no government contacts, but only business-to-business contacts with companies not affected by EU sanctions’.

Despite repeated requests, Launsky-Tiefenthal and his colleagues refused to answer any follow up questions about the delegation which also included representatives from two Austrian banks and one of the world’s largest gem buyers. These firms were included in the delegation although EU sanctions target both Burma’s gem industry and banking sector. Roxel RMG, a firm that, according to the presentation, trades in ‘forest products’, was also included in the delegation despite the fact that EU sanctions also target the importing of Burmese wood to Europe.

A story published last week in The Independent newspaper in London quoted P&P Consulting’s Plattner claiming that his firm’s interests in Burma are focused on ‘security rather than defence’. Plattner also said that P&P consulting wants to ‘provide security for airports in Burma’.

It is unclear how P&P consulting could provide security for Burma’s airports without dealing with Burma’s government which along with the military operates airports throughout the country.  Many of the airports that have been recently privatized in Burma like Rangoon International Airport are now operated by Pioneer Aerodrome Services, a subsidiary of Asia World.  Asia World is controlled by Stephen Law and his father Lao Sit Han, aka Lo Hsing Han, whom the US government calls a ‘narco kingpin’.  Asia World, Stephen Law and his father are on both the EU and US sanctions list.

Austria along with Germany has been the target of intense criticism from Burma activists in Europe who blame Vienna for helping to weaken EU sanctions against the Burmese regime.  Such criticism is bolstered by a recently leaked US diplomatic cable from 2008 disclosed by WikiLeaks which quotes a British official telling American diplomats that in contrast to the UK and other EU members who support sanctions, ‘At the far end opposing sanctions are the Germans and Austrians’.

Reached for comment Mark Farmaner of the Burma Campaign UK told Mizzima that he wasn’t surprised by the actions of the Austrian diplomats in assisting the delegation.  According to Farmaner, ‘Austria has been one of the countries which has worked to ensure EU sanctions are mostly toothless, and now they are taking their companies to Burma to exploit the fact that tough EU sanctions simply don’t exist. It is revolting to see the Austrian government and Austrian companies rushing to put money in the pockets of war criminals and torturers’.

Austrian bank wants to renew ties with blacklisted junta bank

The delegation’s presentation noted that the Austrian Control bank, or Die Oesterreichische Kontrollbank AG,  ‘is interested in the resumption of relations with the Myanma Foreign Trade Bank’, a junta-controlled bank that is one of the few banks in Burma not included on the EU sanctions list. However, the bank, which is also known as the Myanmar Foreign Trade Bank, is on the US Treasury department’s office of Foreign Assets control’s sanctions blacklist. Dealings between the Austrian Control bank and the bank could put the Austrian firm in violation of US sanctions if funds are sent to Burma via the US.  In 2009, Credit Suisse was fined for similar transactions which violated US but not EU and related Swiss sanctions on Burma.

The Burmese regime is known to force international NGO’s and aid groups to send funds to Burma through its Foreign Trade Bank where funds are transferred at artificial rates that greatly favor the bank.  In July 2008, then UN Humanitarian Chief John Holmes admitted that as much as US $10 million of the funds provided by donors to help Burmese victims of Cyclone Nargis may have been lost due to the flawed exchange rate system demanded by the Burmese regime.

The other bank included in the delegation was Bank Austria, described in the presentation as a member of the European-wide bank group UniCredit since 2005 and the ‘undisputed market leader in trade finance in Austria’. According to the presentation, the bank’s goal in Burma is ‘intensifying relationships to local authorities/banks/importers’.

Delegation also visited notorious golf course

In addition to meeting members of the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (UMFCCI), the trade delegation to Burma also met with Burmese real estate tycoon Serge Pun at his Pun Hlaing golf course designed by South African pro Gary Player on land allegedly expropriated from Burmese rice farmers who were not compensated.

Gary Player’s involvement in the golf course, known as the ‘pride of Myanmar’, was condemned by retired South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who called it ‘a playground of the ruling junta in the murderous dictatorship of Burma’. At the height of the Saffron Revolution in 2007, Tutu and fellow Burma supporters in South Africa succeeded in having Gary Player disinvited from the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund Charity Golf Tournament because of Player’s connection to the regime’s favorite golf club.

A press release issued by Pun’s SPA/FMI Group of Companies also noted that the ambassador and the trade delegation visited the private Pun Haling hospital located on the grounds of the exclusive golf club. The Irrawaddy magazine reported last August that Burma’s recently retired senior general Than Shwe’s received treatment for diabetes at the hospital.

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