Corruption of Myanmar’s illegal teak trade 'goes to the heart of Government'

By agency reporter
February 21, 2019

For three decades, the multi-million dollar international trade in Burmese teak has been riddled with crime and high-level corruption, driving conflict and human rights abuses in Myanmar.

Now, a two-year undercover investigation by the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) has unearthed and exposed a near-mythic ‘Burmese teak kingpin’ at the centre of an international network, the so-called ‘Shadow President’ who conspired with and bribed the most senior military and Government officials in Myanmar.

The new report State of Corruption: The top-level conspiracy behind the global trade in Myanmar’s stolen teak reveals how this powerful criminal – identified by EIA as the late Cheng Pui Chee (in Thailand, aka Chetta Apipatana) – was able to establish a secret off-the-books system of fraudulent trade in the cream of the country’s teak logs, a trade run in parallel to, and within, the official legal trade administered by the State-owned Myanmar Timber Enterprise (MTE).

Burmese teak is highly prized for its unique properties and much of the illicit timber goes into neighbouring China, India and Thailand, although substantial volumes have been trafficked via Italy into Europe and the US for use in the luxury yachting sector.

“Since 1989, Myanmar’s past military regimes and its current Government have touted the trade in Burmese teak as being wholly legal and sustainable, produced in compliance with the rule of law, but this is simply not the case”, said Faith Doherty, EIA Forests Campaigns Leader.

“Our investigations have laid bare a tangled web of businesses, criminal players and corrupt officials and politicians, with this ‘Shadow President’ squatting in the middle of it and pulling the strands, not only bribing key figures in authority but even going so far as to pay for the education of their children and so effectively buying himself another generation of influence.”

The fraud tainting the Myanmar’s nominally legal teak trade is deceptively simple – once logging quotas have been acquired, the highest quality grades of teak are supposed to be returned to the Government for the MTE to auction off but instead they have been systematically mis-graded and illegally channeled into private hands, depriving the country of tens of millions of dollars annually even as it lines the pockets of the few.

Doherty added: “Our findings also put paid to the constant refrain and official lie that the only illegal timber trade in Myanmar is being carried out by armed ethnic organisations in conflict with the State when the reality is that it has been, and is, conducted with the knowledge and active participation of key figures in the Government.

“The bottom line is that Myanmar’s teak trade is effectively a criminal enterprise and all teak exports to Europe are unable to comply with the European Union Timber Regulation and, by extension, also contravene the USA’s Lacey Act – if you’ve got Burmese teak on your luxury yacht then the chances are that you’re sailing around on stolen goods.”

Among its key recommendations, State of Corruption urges the Myanmar Government to investigate and prosecute high-level corruption, including of military and Government officials as well as private sector actors, and to conduct a full assessment of current forest conditions that includes indigenous communities and people reliant on Myanmar’s forests.

* Read State of Corruption here

* Environmental Investigation Agency https://eia-international.org/

[Ekk/6]

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