Blacklisted Burmese tycoon leading hunt for missing climbers

Businessman with ties to military authorities heads mountain rescue team in search for pair

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The Independent Online

A controversial Burmese tycoon with close links to the country’s military establishment is leading the hunt for two climbers who have disappeared after scaling what has long been considered South East Asia’s highest mountain.

Businessman Tay Za, who owns everything from luxury hotels to a mobile phone company and who remains on a US blacklist, set off from Rangoon with a search team to look for the climbers who last month reached the summit of Hkakabo Razi.

It was the first all-Burmese ascent of the mountain and the two climbers were due to rejoin the rest of the team on Tuesday but did not return to base camp. Yesterday, officials said there had been no word from the pair, Aung Myint Myat and Wai Yan Min, since they reached the summit of the mountain on 31 August. Before starting their descent they called but said the battery on their satellite phone was low. Reports said that Myo Thant, chairman of the Universities Hiking and Mountaineering Club, which organised the expedition, told reporters a total of five helicopters had been dispatched to the mountain, located in the very north of Burma. The mountain is said to be enveloped in light rain but conditions are not unfavourable. AFP reported that 46-year-old Tay Za, who has long been close to senior military officers who previously ran Burma and who still exercise significant influence over the country, was leading the search. A keen mountaineer himself, Tay Za had to be rescued from a mountain close to Hkakabo Razi in 2011 when his helicopter broke down.

“The team left by their special flight this afternoon,” said at official at Rangoon airport. He said the search team would be based in Putao.

Hkakabo Razi is located in the eastern Himalayas, in Burma’s Kachin state, at the point where the country touches both India and China. A geological survey carried in 1925 measured the mountain at 5,881m, or 19,295ft, which would mean it was the highest in both the country and all of South East Asia.

More recently, satellite and digital data have suggested the highest mountain may actually be Gamlang Razi, which is also in Kachin state. Myo Thant, the expedition organiser, said his climbers confirmed the height with a GPS device and the team was planning to hold a press conference in Rangoon on 20 September, until the two climbers went missing.

All eight members of the team had originally intended to head to the summit but because the approach was so narrow only the two climbers went ahead. They spent around half an hour on the summit, planting the national flag and four Buddha statues. The other six members of the team made their way to a village at the base of the mountain on Tuesday morning.

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The mountain, which requires climbers to hike for a month to reach the start of the climb, was first climbed in 1996 by Japanese mountaineer Takashi Ozaki, who included a Tibetan-born Burmese national named Nyima Gyaltsen, among his team. Mr Ozaki died in an attempt on Everest in 2011.

In February 2011 a military helicopter was dispatched to Fukanrazi mountain to rescue Tay Za, whose own helicopter had broken down.

Tay Za, who was close to senior general Than Shwe, had been with friends and was conducting a survey of the mountain before attempting an ascent. The authorities later issued a ban on scaling the peak. Than Shwe’s junta was replaced by a supposedly civilian administration in 2011, headed by President Thein Sein, who has been overseeing a transformation towards democracy. Most – but not all – political prisoners have been released from jail and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi controls more than 40 seats in the parliament.

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