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UNICEF defends renting from Myanmar general's kin

YANGON, Myanmar – The United Nations children’s agency has defended a decision to pay nearly $90,000 a month for its new office in Myanmar – a three-story house owned by the family of an ex-army general who was slapped with U.S. sanctions during the country’s dictatorship.

UNICEF said in a news release Thursday it carried out an “extensive search,” looking at more than 40 locations, before signing the deal.

Without mentioning the name of Maj. Gen. Nyunt Tin – whose family owns the property – UNICEF said he no longer holds public office and was not currently subject to criminal charges or international sanctions.

Nyunt Tin was one of the most powerful ministers under the former junta regime led by Than Shwe.

Myanmar, which only recently emerged from a half-century of military rule, has implemented sweeping changes since handing power to a nominally civilian government three years ago.

However, former generals, business cronies and druglords tied to the old regime still control many of the country’s most lucrative assets – including property – and continue to benefit financially as foreign investors and aid groups flock to the country.

Min Aung, a real estate agent not connected to the UNICEF deal, said while the price of rent had skyrocketed in part because of short supply, $87,000 a month for a 33,000-square-foot house was the steepest he had heard of in his 17-year career. He has signed several deals of $20,000 a month or higher.

It was not uncommon for former generals, their children or associates to be landlords, he said.

The news, first reported by The Irrawaddy website earlier this week, has sparked public outcry. The former general spent years on a U.S. sanctions list and served as a commander of the Irrawaddy region before being appointed minister of agriculture and irrigation in 1997.

He was fired in 2004 and charged with corruption and abuse of power, and had been placed under house arrest.