The lobbying firm representing Myanmar’s ruling junta has ended its controversial defense of the Feb. 1 military coup after failing to secure approval from US and Canadian authorities.
Canada-based Dickens and Madson signed a $2 million contract with Defense Minister Mya Tun Oo for public relations and lobbying services in early March, Foreign Lobby Report first reported. According to the agreement, the firm’s founder, former Israeli intelligence official Ari Ben-Menashe, was expected to lobby 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.
A new lobbying disclosure with the Department of Justice however indicates that the contract was terminated on May 11 and that no money exchanged hands.
“With respect to the Union of Myanmar, Dickens & Madson’s contract with Myanmar was cancelled by the registrant before the conditions for its effectiveness were satisfied,” the firm wrote in a July 7 filing with the Department of Justice. An updated filing a week later removed that sentence and replaced it with language saying the firm “engaged in public relations and humanitarian work” on behalf of Myanmar’s ruling junta.
In a phone interview on Tuesday, Ben-Menashe said a key issue was getting approval from US and Canadian authorities to get paid. Both countries have sanctioned Burmese officials, including Mya Tun Oo, for their alleged role in deposing government leader Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint.
“I have no problem with the Burmese,” Ben-Menashe said. “But the fact is we can’t get paid because of the sanctions, that’s one problem. We’re not a non-profit, and just to fly there costs money.”
Ben-Menashe added that he planned to restart his work for Myanmar if the US and Canadian governments have a change of heart. He defended the Burmese military as a bulwark against Chinese influence in the country and expressed hope that the Biden administration would come to see things that way.
Andrew Kramer, an attorney for Ben-Menashe, said lawyers for Dickens & Madson held conversations with US and Canadian officials and quickly realized that the firm would not get approval to get paid by Myanmar. Kramer said the firm never formally bothered to apply for a sanctions waiver with the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).
“It was pretty clear from our discussions with them that we weren’t going to be able to get that license from OFAC,” he said. “Obviously there’s not a great willingness to help the Myanmar government at this point.”
He added that the firm’s lobbying registration under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) sparked a Department of Justice inquiry into the service terms of the agreement. The US Treasury Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“All persons in Canada and Canadians abroad must comply with Canada’s strict sanctions measures,” said a spokesman for Global Affairs Canada, the government department that handles the country’s diplomatic relations. “This includes individuals and entities. The Government of Canada recommends that companies active in Myanmar assess their operations, take any appropriate action to comply with Canadian sanctions measures and export controls, and uphold high standards of human rights and responsible business conduct.”
While Dickens & Madson has not reported any lobbying activity, Ben-Menashe did help arrange for a CNN crew to film inside the country. Rather than advance the military’s narrative of a stable country under control, however, reporters described “a country exploding with anguish at the brutality of its illegitimate military leaders.”
Since the March contract US pressure on Myanmar has only increased, with the Biden administration slapping sanctions on seven more members of the military and blacklisting four companies with military ties earlier this month.
“Today’s measures further demonstrate that we will continue to take additional action against, and impose costs on, the military and its leaders until they reverse course and provide for a return to democracy,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a July 2 statement.
Update: This post was updated on July 15 with more