Korean firm to sell shares in Japanese pearl company partnering with Myanmar junta 

South Korea’s MBK Partners is selling hundreds of millions of dollars in shares in jeweller Tasaki, which runs a joint venture with the military-controlled Myanmar Pearl Enterprise

South Korea-based private equity firm will sell its US$500 million of shares in Japanese jeweller Tasaki, which is cultivating pearls in partnership with the Myanmar junta, according to international news reports. 

The firm, MBK Partners, has hired Daiwa Securities to manage the sale. Neither Daiwa, MBK, nor Tasaki would comment on the sale, according to a November 2 Reuters article. 

With investments in more than 80 companies in Japan, South Korea and China, MBK is one of the largest equity firms in East Asia. 

Tasaki, which specialises in creating contemporary pearl jewellery harvested from its own oyster farms, operates out of Kobe, Japan, and has more than 100 outlets globally. 

It also runs a joint venture with the Myanmar military-controlled Myanmar Pearl Enterprise (MPE), which cultivates pearls under the name Myanmar Tasaki from Domae and Langan islands in the Myeik Archipelago in Tanintharyi. The businesses are worth more than $8.4m. 

The United States sanctioned MPE in April 2021, more than two months after Myanmar’s coup, stating that the company was financially contributing to the military’s violent repression of civilians. MPE was also sanctioned during the tenure of the State Peace and Development Council, a previous dictatorship led by Than Shwe and formed in 1997.

The publicly mandated National Unity Government (NUG) announced in May last year that it would blacklist domestic and foreign companies engaging with MPE. 

The junta has increased pearl cultivation since the coup, exceeding production targets at the end of the 2021 fiscal year. More than 360 lots of pearls were sold at the Naypyitaw Gems Emporium 2022 and 300 were sold this year, each valued between $1,500 and $5,800, according to industry documents.

Min Aung Hlaing, second from right, inspects a string of pearls at the March 2023 gems emporium in Naypyitaw (Junta-controlled Ministry of Information) 

Tasaki’s relationship with MPE has continued despite international restrictions and criticism from rights and advocacy groups including Justice for Myanmar, which has accused the Japanese company of supporting the junta by maintaining ties with its business partners. 

“Tasaki’s business cooperation with the Myanmar military is a frank violation of international human rights. We ask Tasaki to leave the bloody pearl industry in a responsible manner,” Justice for Myanmar spokesperson Yadanar Maung told Myanmar Now on November 3. 

Myanmar Tasaki faced domestic opposition prior to the coup, when southern Myanmar civil society organisations objected to the elected National League for Democracy government’s decision to extend pearl farming licences to the company in 2020, and sent letters in protest to the Tanintharyi regional government. 

There are 12 pearl production camps operating in Tanintharyi under the junta: four run by foreign companies, seven by domestic companies, and one which is state-owned. 

News of MBK’s planned sale broke shortly after it was revealed that US energy company Chevron still holds assets in Myanmar, more than 18 months after it announced that it would exit the country.

Chevron previously condemned violence and human rights abuses perpetrated by the junta in the aftermath of the February 2021 coup, and declared in January 2022 that it would leave Myanmar. In February 2023, the energy company claimed it had agreed to sell its assets there, including a 41.1 percent stake in the Yadana gas field—a joint venture with the nation’s state energy company—to Canada’s MTI Energy.

A spokesperson for Chevron confirmed to Reuters last week, however, that the company still owned its Myanmar assets, claiming it was ensuring its exit was “conducted in a planned and orderly manner” without giving a timeline for how long that might take.

“We have signed an agreement to sell the company’s interest in all Myanmar assets and exit the country. The terms of the agreement are confidential,” the spokesperson said.

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