Myanmar’s junta has hired a former Israeli intelligence official to lobby the US and other governments as the country faces an international backlash over last month’s military coup, Foreign Lobby Report has learned.
Defense Minister Mya Tun Oo retained Ari Ben-Menashe and his Montreal-based Dickens & Madson Canada to “assist in explaining the real situation in the country,” according to a consultancy agreement dated Thursday. The firm is tasked with lobbying Congress and the Joe Biden administration as well as the governments of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Israel and Russia in addition to the United Nations, the African Union and other international organizations and NGOs.
The firm is expected to file a formal lobbying contract with the US Department of Justice early next week, Ben-Menashe said in a telephone interview Friday morning from Myanmar, where he’s wrapping up his second trip in the past few weeks. He said the contract was for a “big amount” but declined to get into specifics.
(Update: Dickens & Madson said the contract with Mya Tun Oo was for $2 million in a Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) disclosure filed Monday, March 8 with the US Department of Justice. The amount is to be paid “when legally permissible by controlling jurisdictions” since the minister and other military leaders are under US sanctions.
“Within the United States, Registrant will provide advice and counsel to the foreign principal and advocate before the executive and/or legislative branches of the government of the United States to seek support and humanitarian aid for the benefit of the citizens of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar and to strive for the removal or modification of current sanctions,” the lobbying disclosure states. “Additionally, Registrant proposes to provide media and public relations services to further the country’s goals and activities. Registrant also provides lobbying services to the foreign principal in other countries.”)
Ben-Menashe indicated that he plans to present the country’s military rulers as a counterweight to alleged growing Chinese influence in the country under Aung San Suu Kyi, the government leader whose National League for Democracy swept legislative elections in November. The Burmese military declared the elections to be illegitimate on Feb. 1 and deposed Suu Kyi and President Win Myint, sparking international condemnation.
“Aung San Suu Kyi moved toward China while she was in power,” Ben-Menashe said. “And these guys [in the military] don’t like it.”
He added that officials in Saudi Arabia and the UAE had offered to assist with the return of Rohingya Muslims, almost a million of whom have fled to neighboring Bangladesh in recent years amid what the United Nations have labeled a campaign of genocide. Ben-Menashe said he had advised the country’s rulers in the 1990s and warned at the time against having Suu Kyi in the government, claiming she had shown anti-Muslim animus.
“Aung San Suu Kyi as leader was the one who did in the Rohingyas, not the army,” he insisted.
Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, called any effort to rehabilitate the Burmese military’s reputation on the Rohingya issue “utterly ludicrous.” While Suu Kyi herself has faced international criticism for failing to protect the country’s Muslim minority, the International Court of Justice in The Hague last year squarely blamed the country’s military for the genocide.
“A government that the United States and other actors would like to work with would be a government that is a stable democracy,” Kurlantzick said. “And there’s no way that this helps on that course.”
The lobbying push comes as the Biden administration last month sanctioned 10 Burmese officials and three entities for their role in the coup or their links to the military, including Mya Tun Oo. The chief of general staff for the army, navy, and air force since 2016, he was appointed minister of defense on Feb. 1, the day of the coup.
“The military must relinquish the power it seized and demonstrate respect for the will of the people of Burma as expressed in their November 8th election,” Biden said in White House remarks about the coup on Feb. 10.
The US government has continued to crack down since then.
On Thursday the Commerce Department imposed export controls on the Ministry of Defense and Home Affairs and two companies close to the military after security forces killed dozens of protesters. And Reuters reports that US officials blocked access to $1 billion in funds held at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York that the country’s military rulers tried to access soon after seizing power.
Still, Ben-Menashe insisted that certain US officials are “very interested” in trying a different tack with the Burmese military.
“They’re worried that they’re going to throw these guys in the hands of China,” he said.
A former Israeli intelligence officer with a history of US lobbying for a variety of controversial clients, Ben-Menashe has close ties to powerful actors in the Middle East. He has notably lobbied for Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar and Sudan’s military junta and was hired by UAE ports operator DP World last year to get US support for its development of Port Sudan as the Donald Trump administration was pushing the two countries to normalize relations with Israel.
Last fall, Ben-Menashe signed a $1 million contract with a businessman purportedly acting as an agent of the new president of Kyrgyzstan, Sadyr Japarov. That contract also calls on Dickens & Madson to seek cooperation from Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE in developing the country.
Update: This post was updated at 6:30 a.m. on March 9, 2021 with new information about Dickens & Madson’s lobbying disclosure with the US Department of Justice.