Thai senator’s ties to arrested Myanmar tycoon stir controversy ahead of election

Commentary by Zachary Abuza
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Thai senator’s ties to arrested Myanmar tycoon stir controversy ahead of election Tun Min Latt, seen here in a yellow tie, escorts Myanmar Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing during a 2019 defense expo in Bangkok.

Ahead of Thailand’s May 14 election, the opposition Move Forward Party and Sen. Upakit Pachariyangkun have been engaged in a spat over his relationship with a Myanmar businessman sanctioned by the U.S. government for gun-running and other alleged crimes. 

The spat has exposed the cozy relationship between the military-backed elites of Thailand and Myanmar. It has also called into question the rights of the Thai opposition to question government figures and the free press to report on them.

Despite his denials and deflections, Upakit has been a partner in businesses with one of Myanmar’s most politically connected businessmen, Tun Min Latt, who was arrested in Bangkok in September 2022 for alleged money laundering and narcotics trafficking.

Upakit is one of Thailand’s 250 military-appointed senators. His family has deep ties to ultra-royalist and military elites. His father served as foreign minister from 1976 to 1980 during the military-backed governments of Thanin Kraivichien and Gen. Kriangsak Chamanan. 

Tun Min Latt, 53, is a close ally of Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, who leads Myanmar’s ruling junta, and has served as an arms broker for the military through his sanctioned Star Sapphire Group of Companies

He allegedly has imported weapons from Israeli firms Elbit Systems, Israel Shipyards, Israel Aerospace Industries, and for a time Star Sapphire was the registered agent of NORINCO, the Chinese state-owned arms conglomerate. Star Sapphire’s shareholders include Min Aung Hlaing’s daughter, as well as military cronies. 

Last week, the U.S. Treasury sanctioned Tun Min Latt, his wife, Win Min Soe, and three entities they have ownership stakes in – the Star Sapphire Group of Companies and two subsidiaries.

Tun Min Latt and Upakit have owned a host of companies together including The Myanmar Allure Group, which developed a hotel and casino, along with power companies including United Power of Asia and its Myanmar subsidiaries. They have cross-ownership in each other’s companies, and there is documentation tying the men together for 24 years. 

According to charges filed in December 2022 from his arrest three months earlier, Tun Min Latt allegedly took proceeds of the sale of illegal drugs and, through his and Upakit’s companies, transferred the proceeds to his Allure Group P&E, which purchased electricity from United Power of Asia, and sold it across the Myanmar border, the Prachataienglish news website reported. Tun Min Latt and three other defendants have denied all the charges and pleaded not guilty on Jan. 23, 2023. 

Upakit claims to have divested his shares in 2019 to two of the firms that he had significant interests in when he was appointed to the senate – United Power of Asia and Myanmar Allure Group. But he maintained some interests. His son-in-law had shares in both and served as director of the latter.

Upakit has denied links to the drug trade, Thai media reported. 

“On the day he was arrested, I admitted that I know Tun Min Latt. I have known him for decades. I consulted with him when I invested in his home country, and vice-versa. But it doesn’t mean I am behind the illegal activities … I swear to God my family and I never get involved with the drug trade,” Upakit said.

What’s the scandal?

In the rough house of Thai politics, a senator being tied to a drug lord isn’t unprecedented. In 2019, the ruling Palang Pracharat Party survived an uproar when it was revealed that an Australian court had convicted Thamanat Prompow, their deputy minister of agriculture, of drug smuggling.

But the plot in this latest case has thickened because of the close associations with Myanmar’s junta, which seized power from an elected government in February 2021. When police raided Tun Min Latt’s Bangkok apartment last September, they seized about 1.4 billion baht (U.S. 40.7 million) in assets, including more than $1 million in assets of coup leader Min Aung Hlaing’s two children – a 2017 property deed for a four-bedroom condo in the same luxury apartment building and two account books, BenarNews reported.

Then Thai police reportedly issued an arrest warrant for Upakit on Oct. 3, 2022, only to withdraw the warrant soon after.

An internal court document – posted on opposition Move Forward MP Rangsiman Rome’s Facebook page – justified the revocation of the warrant, alleging that proper procedures for senior officials were not followed.

Upakit was then apparently served with a summons for questioning, but he’s not been questioned.

With a scandal brewing, Upakit has gone on the offensive. 

He has denied the accusations  against him and his son-in-law, Dean Gultula, who was arrested and then charged along with Tun Min Latt. Upakit described it as “fake news.”

The two officers who applied for the arrest warrant were re-assigned. One was transferred to remote Chaiyaphum province. Under fire, the head of the Thai police called for a full investigation, but at the same time denied that the officers were punished and said their reassignment was routine.

Upakit also filed corruption and misconduct cases at the Criminal Court against the two police for dereliction of duty. 

On March 15, one of the police officers was sacked, prompting a rare public backlash and joint statement from the Royal Thai Police Association, Police Cadet Academy Association and Inquiry Official Association.

In a February parliamentary debate, Rangsiman grilled the government for failing to deal with the record-breaking volume of illicit narcotics pouring into the country from Myanmar. 

Though Rangsiman did not mention Upakit by name, he alluded to the senator’s connections to Tun Min Latt.

Upakit denied the charges and filed a 100 million baht ($2.9 million) defamation case against Rangsiman, along with two other defamation lawsuits against a lawyer and the two Thai PBS hosts who interviewed him

In another parliamentary debate, Rangsiman called for an investigation into the alleged judicial interference, including the head of the criminal court. He has since called for an investigation into the senator’s assets.

Supreme Court commission

In an attempt to deflect parliamentary investigations, the president of the Supreme Court established his own fact-finding commission.

Fearful that the controversy over Upakit and Tun Min Latt could represent a political liability ahead of the elections, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha and his allies have gone on the attack against Rangsiman. 

Prayuth has denied helping Upakit or intervening to halt the investigation. 

But Upakit and the other 249 senators play a key role in electing the Thai prime minister. Prayuth, who has been trailing in recent voter polls, needs their full support. Upakit also owns the building where Prayuth’s United Thai Nation Party headquarters are housed.

Now Rangsiman from the political opposition is in legal jeopardy for failing to respond to two police summonses following the defamation charges, despite his constitutional immunity – fueling suspicions of a politically motivated charge to silence the Move Forward Party spokesman ahead of the elections. 

Meanwhile, the State Administrative Council, as Myanmar’s junta is officially known, is expected to push for Tun Min Latt’s release – so he can be deported and return to enriching the SAC, their family members, and brokering arms for the junta. 

The government of Prayuth is widely seen as sympathetic to the junta. Prayuth himself took power in a coup in 2014 before cementing his control through the kind of flawed political process that Myanmar’s military would like to emulate. 

All this leaves Thailand’s legal system in the dock. If Upakit is not investigated, which appears likely, it will reinforce the impression that it’s business as usual between Thailand’s military-backed elites and their counterparts in Myanmar. 

Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College in Washington and an adjunct at Georgetown University. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Defense, the National War College, Georgetown University or BenarNews.


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