By Aung Hla Tun
YANGON (Reuters) - Cronies of Myanmar's military junta which kept democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest for nearly two decades have reached a milestone in their quest to rehabilitate their image: they're now donors to Suu Kyi's political party.
While the Nobel Peace laureate's willingness to accept military-tainted funds for education projects might jar with her international image, her supporters praised the move as politically shrewd and financially necessary.
Suu Kyi's opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), accepted 211.5 million kyat ($250,000) at a fundraising concert from companies owned by Western-blacklisted businessmen who made fortunes under the military dictatorship that ruled Myanmar for almost half a century.
The donations have caused barely a stir in Myanmar, a sign of how much Suu Kyi is revered and of how successfully the cronies have repositioned themselves since a reformist government came to power in March 2011. Some see it as a sign of reconciliation after five decades of military misrule.
AGB Bank, owned by self-proclaimed billionaire Tay Za, once described by the U.S. Treasury as "a notorious regime henchman and arms dealer", donated 40 million kyat ($47,000) to Suu Kyi's party at a December concert.
The wife of Kyaw Win, a tycoon who owns the conglomerate Shwe Than Lwin and private television station SkyNet, donated a further 41.5 million kyat ($50,000) in an auction for one of two sweaters knitted by Suu Kyi, while SkyNet itself donated 130 million kyat ($151,430).
"All the money we have raised is for educational purposes, and has nothing to do with the rest of the party," said Myint Myint Sein, who is responsible for the NLD's humanitarian and education policies.
A top official said the party was "very thankful" for the donations. "I am sure all party members are happy about this," said Naing Naing, who sits on the NLD's Central Executive Committee.
Tay Za and many other well-connected businessmen remain on Western blacklists despite the suspension last year of most sanctions against the government following a year of dramatic reforms, including amnesty for hundreds of political prisoners.
Many people loathe and mistrust them for their tacit support of a brutal regime, conspicuous flaunting of wealth and continued domination of many sectors of Myanmar's economy.
"CHANCE TO MEND THEIR WAYS"
Opposition leader Suu Kyi, who spent a total of 17 years under house arrest until she was freed in 2010, defended her actions last week, saying it was better to donate money for good purposes rather than waste it.
"Anybody should be given a chance to mend their ways, no matter how much wrong they have done," she said.
Her association with what she called "those so-called cronies" seems not to have harmed her reputation, already dented by criticisms that she has not stood up for ethnic victims of state-sponsored violence.
Some supporters on Facebook, the main forum for popular political discussion in Myanmar, have nicknamed Suu Kyi "Robin Suu", a reference to the English outlaw Robin Hood who stole from the rich to give to the poor.
"I don't think it is a major scandal," said Mark Farmaner, director of Burma Campaign UK. "We've not seen any evidence yet that receiving donations from cronies is going to have an effect on policy. The NLD don't have many policies to implement yet."
The donations are vital to a party which lacks a mechanism to raise funds from its million-plus members, most of whom are poor.
"In politics, funding is essential to survive," said Derek Tonkin, a former British ambassador to Myanmar. "It has to come from local sources. Provided the 'cronies' fund the right projects, why should we complain? The Burmese people certainly won't."
By accepting donations from Myanmar's richest civilians, Suu Kyi's party is extending a hand to key players in the country's economic recovery, said Trevor Wilson, a former Australian ambassador to Myanmar.
"The cronies have a tremendous economic stake in the future of the country. It's most important to bring them under the rule of law," he said.
Both Suu Kyi and her funders are planning for a 2015 general election, in which the NLD faces an unpopular but well-funded rival party established under the former junta.
(Writing by Paul Carsten; Additional reporting by Min Zayar Oo in Yangon; Editing by Jason Szep and Robert Birsel)