WASHINGTON (Reuters) – An Israeli-Canadian lobbyist hired by Myanmar’s junta will be paid $2 million to “assist in explaining the real situation” of the army’s coup to the United States and other countries, documents filed with the U.S. government show.
More than 60 protesters have been killed and 1,900 people arrested since Feb. 1, when Myanmar’s generals seized power and detained civilian leaders including State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi.
Ari Ben-Menashe and his firm, Dickens & Madson Canada, will represent Myanmar’s military government in Washington, and lobby Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Israel and Russia, as well as international bodies like the United Nations, according to a consultancy agreement.
The Montreal-based firm will “assist the devising and execution of policies for the beneficial development of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, and also to assist in explaining the real situation in the Country,” read the agreement, submitted on Monday to the Justice Department as part of compliance with the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act.
A spokesman for the Myanmar military government did not answer calls from Reuters seeking comment.
Ben-Menashe’s client portfolio – which has included late Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe – has drawn attention before. By working with Myanmar’s military, legal experts say he risks violating U.S. sanctions imposed on top generals.
Ben-Menashe told Reuters on Saturday his task was to convince Washington that Myanmar’s generals wanted to move closer to the West and away from China. He said they wanted to resettle Rohingya Muslims who fled a 2017 assault for which the United Nations has accused the military of overseeing a genocide.
“It is highly implausible that he could convince the United States of the narrative he’s proposing,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.
Documents submitted by Ben-Menashe showed the agreement was reached with the junta’s defense minister, General Mya Tun Oo, and that the government would pay the firm $2 million.
Ben-Menashe has courted controversy for four decades since he testified in congressional hearings over the Reagan-era Iran scandal known as the October Surprise, but questions were raised about his credibility.
More recently, he lobbied for Mugabe and Sudan’s military, drawing outrage from human rights campaigners. Ben-Menashe said he was “proud” of this work.
“If we find somebody reprehensible, unacceptable, we say no,” he added.
Sanctions lawyers and a law enforcement official said his latest role could land him in legal trouble.
Mya Tun Oo and other top generals have been sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department and the Canadian government, so the paperwork says the payment will be made “when legally permissible.”
Ben-Menashe said he represented the government of Myanmar rather than the general.
Ben-Menashe’s disclosures show he is dealing directly with Mya Tun Oo and promising to lobby to have sanctions removed, so he would have difficulty arguing that he was not aiding a sanctioned party, said Peter Kucik, a former senior sanctions adviser at the U.S. Treasury.
The U.S. Treasury Department declined to comment.
Ben-Menashe said he had received legal advice that he would need licenses from Treasury’s Office of Foreign Asset Controls (OFAC) and the Canadian government to accept the payment, but that he would not be breaking the law by lobbying for the junta.
“There’s technicalities here but we’ll leave it to the lawyers and OFAC to deal with it,” he said, adding his lawyers were in touch with Treasury officials.
(Reporting by Simon Lewis; additional reporting by Daphne Psaledakis and Mark Hosenball; Editing by Robert Birsel and Sonya Hepinstall)