‘They Could Sue Me If They Think They Are Right’

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 15 May 2015

Elected to the Yangon City Development Committee’s (YCDC) central council last year, Khin Hlaing has become an outspoken critic of five development projects in the vicinity of Shwedagon Pagoda. The 49-year-old businessman—who made an independent tilt for the Union Parliament in both the 2010 elections and 2012 by-elections, and intends to contest this year’s general election—Khin Hlaing says that he has raised issues with the five developments in the interest of his constituents.

The Irrawaddy sought comment from Marga Landmark, the majority partner in the Dagon City 1 development, regarding some of the matters discussed below with Khin Hlaing. For more information, see the editor’s note at the end of this interview.

There is no suggestion that Marga Landmark has behaved unlawfully with regard to its development application and subsequent site work. The YCDC granted permission on the proposed height of Dagon City 1 in Oct. 2013, and the project was granted approval by the Myanmar Investment Commission (MIC) in March 2014. The MIC retains ultimate power on the project’s approval, with the YCDC relegated to an advisory role. The suspension order issued by MIC on Jan. 22 is understood to be temporary, and Marga has stated that it understands from the most recent coordination meeting on the developments, chaired by the MIC chairman, “that the purpose of the review is to continue to the projects, not to stop them.”

Why are you so outspoken in your opposition to this project?

I’m against all five projects near Shwedagon Pagoda, not only Dagon City 1. I am not happy to see any high-rises near the pagoda, which I have lived in the vicinity of for 17 years. Generally, only a maximum 62-foot height is allowed near the pagoda. But for the buildings in some of the projects, which have premium views of the pagoda, the regulations said they had to remain under 190 feet. As a Buddhist, it’s unacceptable. Plus, I’m elected to represent the western district. As a YCDC member elected by my people, I’m doing what I’m supposed to do. For example, there will be very serious traffic congestion if all the projects there are completed because of the size of them.

The project has been public knowledge for more than a year. Why did you begin to speak against it so recently?

I’m the first one to raise questions about these projects, which was during a council meeting joined by the mayor on Jan. 15, seven days after I became a council member. They said it was on the authority of the Rangoon Division government and the YCDC could only make recommendations on the project.

On Jan. 22, the MIC ordered the suspension of the projects, which was followed by the YCDC Engineering Department issuing a suspension letter on Feb. 2. But we still saw advertisements for Dagon City 1 in local publications. I asked relevant authorities to hold ads for the project because it was under suspension and not approved. In March, the YCDC was assigned [by the MIC] to consider revisions to the master plans for the projects.

You say the project has not been approved, but Marga has received permission for the project from the YCDC, MIC and divisional government.

The YCDC didn’t give permission for Dagon City 1 because we had no authority to withhold permission for something that had already been approved by the divisional government and MIC. We could only make comments and recommendations. To do so, we needed to view the drawing and structural designs. The High-Rise Inspection Committee [a department of the YCDC] told me they have just received them. But site preparations for Dagon City 1 had begun before the suspension. If you want to build something, you have to go through proper channels and you have to wait. If you want to build something in Rangoon, you have to consult with the YCDC, no matter from where and from whom you have received permission for your project. It was only when I intervened that they went back to step one, the master plan.

I think the developer is taking the wrong step… [and] the YCDC is afraid of someone ‘upstairs’.

On May 9, Marga released a statement saying they were prepared to take legal action against an individual who they claim has made personal and defamatory comments with inaccurate information and prejudiced views on Dagon City 1. Do you believe this is referring to you, and are you concerned about the threat of legal action?

It’s up to them. If they think they are right, they could do. I don’t know who they are. What I am doing is for the public. They could sue me, or anyone else, if they think they are right. For me, as a YCDC council member elected by the people, I have to say frankly what people should know. If I hide information that people should know, I would be guilty of cheating the people. I have evidence and I take responsibility for what I have said. I’m against all five projects but I mention Dagon City 1 because they are the most active developer, in terms of site preparation and selling rooms, while the other four developers remain silent.

Editor’s note: The May 8 edition of the Burmese-language Daily Eleven newspaper featured a report on the five developments that quoted critical remarks by Khin Hlaing. The following day, Marga released a press statement that referred to “an individual in his own capacity” attempting to cast doubt on the project and damaging the reputation of both the developer and Dagon City 1. The statement also suggested that critics of the project might be motivated by “private political or commercial agendas”, and warned that the Marga board was prepared to take legal action against the individual.

On May 11, The Irrawaddy asked Marga when it expected to commence legal action against the individual referred to in the statement, whether Khin Hlaing was the individual in question, and sought clarification as to what Marga believed were the political and commercial agendas being pursued by critics of Dagon City 1. A Marga spokesman declined to confirm the identity of the individual referred to in the statement and issued the following response: “The Board of Directors of Marga Landmark is prepared to take legal action against this individual who has repeatedly made very personal defaming comments with inaccurate information and prejudiced views on Dagon City One.”