Handover of Rangoon’s Secretariat Expected This Month: Developer

By Kyaw Hsu Mon 20 January 2015

RANGOON — The Rangoon government is expected to officially turn over the historical Secretariat office complex to private hands later this month, with the building’s new lessees saying they plan to convert part of the dilapidated colonial structure into an art museum and put US$50 million toward its renovation.

The 120-year-old Secretariat, which sprawls 16 acres across an entire block in Rangoon’s Botahtaung Township, will be leased for 50 years to the local developer Anawmar Art Group, according to Anawmar’s director, Le Yee Soe. The deal was approved by the Myanmar Investment Commission (MIC) in late December, she said.

“We’ve already been allowed by the MIC to renovate and work for 50 years from now, but we need to wait for the handover by the Rangoon regional government. I expect that we will hold a handover ceremony late this month,” Le Yee Soe said.

Plans to privatize many of the former capital’s state-owned colonial buildings were announced in 2011, more than half a decade after all Union government ministries moved their offices to the purpose-built capital Naypyidaw beginning in 2005.

Among them is the Secretariat, formerly the seat of administration during British colonial rule and later for Burma’s independent government. In 2012, the government announced that Anawmar Art Group had been selected as winner of the Secretariat tender, but the MIC demanded that the developers submit a detailed plan of what intended to do with the building prior to giving the group the official go-ahead.

“We will spend an estimated US$50 million on renovation and conservation as suggested by the Yangon Heritage Trust,” she said, referring to a prominent conservation organization in Rangoon. “I expect that we can open the art museum within two years.”

The building has also been the site of tragedy, when in 1947 assassins gunned down national hero Gen. Aung San on the eve of Burma’s independence. Decades of neglect by successive governments have left the Baroque complex in disrepair, with foliage creeping up its crumbling Venetian domes, its ornate turrets weather-worn to a shadow of their past grandeur and boards covering many of the building’s windows.

Until the handover to Anawmar, the building was used as a temporary camp for security troops that were occasionally deployed downtown.

“There will be an art museum, arts and crafts workshops, souvenir shops and a cultural show is expected to be included in our project,” Le Yee Soe said.

“We will import construction materials for the renovation as we need different materials and goods. We’re now in contact with interior design firms from France,” she added.

The little-known Anawmar Art Group is an organization of artists and art collectors. In May 2013, Al-Jazeera reported that director Le Yee Soe’s husband, Soe Thwin Tun, was the grandson of Tun Gyi, a former general under Burma’s previous military regime.

According to Anawmar’s plan, the art museum will be sited in rooms at the Secretariat formerly used for parliamentary matters, at the corner of Maha Bandoola and Bo Aung Kyaw roads. Arts and crafts shops and workshops will open on the ground floor of the same building.

Local media, quoting an MIC official, reported on Tuesday that the Secretariat’s 50-year lease would also allow Anawmar to extend its hold on the property twice, for an additional 10 years each renewal.

Thant Myint-U, chairman of the Yangon Heritage Trust, previously told The Irrawaddy that the Secretariat was “of immense importance to Burmese history” and was “also one of the most beautiful buildings in Asia.” The Yangon Heritage Trust worked with Anawmar to conduct a technical study of potential renovation methods and building use options.

“We brought in top international experts, drew on excellent existing work by Burmese officials and scholars, and closely consulted with Anawmar Group and others,” Thant Myint-U told The Irrawaddy in 2013.

In November, US President Barak Obama was accompanied by Thant Myint-U on a tour of the Secretariat during his visit to Burma.

Under the MIC’s plan to lease several state-owned properties in Rangoon to private developers, the commission will consider a variety of repurposing proposals, including hotels and restaurants. There are more than 180 colonial buildings in Rangoon, according to Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC) data, while the Yangon Heritage Trust maintains that more than 1,000 buildings in Rangoon could be of heritage value.