Controversial High-End Spa in Myanmar’s Historic Secretariat Building Not Licensed

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 30 October 2019

YANGON—A board member of the government-appointed body that manages renovations at Yangon’s Secretariat said a newly opened spa at the complex did not have government permission to operate a business, following public concerns that hosting a high-end beauty outlet at one of Myanmar’s most important colonial-era buildings was historically insensitive and could downgrade the building’s national significance.

Singaporean-run Dé Béau Wellness Center held its grand opening ceremony at the Secretariat on Saturday. According to its website, it offers a form of ancient Chinese massage for “body and wellness”, as well as “beauty treatment” and “body slimming services” with a range of the finest-quality European beauty treatments and products from Singapore and Switzerland. Its Facebook page claims it is “the only Wellness & Business Centre to complete your high society lifestyle.”

After pictures from the opening ceremony went viral on Facebook and other social media, the event attracted a wave of online criticism, with many people questioning whether a building as historically important to the country as the Secretariat should host a spa. Many netizens dropped critical comments on the center’s Facebook page, including one that reads, “The secretariat is not a place to open spa […]  surprised that the authorities allowed this kind of service at our heritage premises. #ShowRespect.”

The colonial-era structure at No. 300 Theinbyu Road has witnessed some of the major milestones in Myanmar’s modern history. Most importantly, it’s the site of a national tragedy. The country’s independence hero, General Aung San, the father of State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and his colleagues were assassinated in an upstairs room in the west wing of the complex in 1947. During colonial times, the Secretariat served as the headquarters for the British Burma administration. Standing in the center of the Secretariat courtyard is the flagstaff on which the flag of a newly independent Burma was first raised on Jan. 4, 1948. After the 1962 military coup, the complex became the Minister’s Office. It was used in this capacity until 2005, when it was abandoned as the military regime suddenly made Naypyitaw its administrative capital.

Currently, Anawmar Art Group, which is owned by family members of former junta General Tun Kyi, is restoring the complex. It won the rights from the Myanmar Investment Commission in 2012 to preserve the building’s architecture and maintain the complex in the long term as a historical museum and arts and cultural center. U Soe Thwin Tun, managing director of the group, told The Irrawaddy in 2016 that one-third of the complex would be used for commercial purposes to cover the considerable cost of renovating and maintaining the building.

Inside Dé Béau Wellness Center / Htet Wai / The Irrawaddy

To monitor the group’s work at the more than 120-year old complex, the Secretariat Trust led by Yangon Regional Minister for Electricity, Transport and Communications Daw Nilar Kyaw was formed in 2016.

On Tuesday, U Ye Min Oo, a member of the trust, told The Irrawaddy that Dé Béau Wellness Center does not yet have a license to run a business at the Secretariat from the Yangon regional government.

“We, the trustees, only learned about it last week, shortly before the opening ceremony,” he said, stressing that the trust has nothing to do with issuing permits to operate a business—it can only authorize renovations.

“As the Yangon government is treating the Secretariat as a ‘special case’, the current spa issue belongs to the cabinet,” he added.

The Yangon government was not available for comment on Tuesday.

Inside Dé Béau Wellness Center / Htet Wai / The Irrawaddy

The trust member also said the team last week drew up a set of “Dos & Don’ts” for commercial practices at the historic building, as it can only “advise”, not issue orders to companies.

“What we recommend for a total ban is anything related to alcohol, unisex massage parlors, KTV [karaoke parlors] and anything that could offend Myanmar culture,” he explained.

U Ye Min Oo said the trust handed the list to Anawmar, and the group will have to submit the recommendations to the Yangon government for approval.

Asked about the opening of the spa, he said the trust suggested it would be alright if it is only for women’s facial care.

Dé Béau Wellness Center says on its website that it offers Tuina ancient Chinese massage and “the best of Eastern and Western body beautiful therapies.”

The Secretariat undergoes restoration work in October 2019. / Aung Kyaw Htet / The Irrawaddy

Since the handover to Anawmar Art Group, the Secretariat has been a source of public controversy, especially over plans to host ceremonies or events there.

In 2015, the group used the courtyard of the Secretariat as a venue for a birthday party for one of its family members. This prompted online criticism, mostly to the effect that the birthday party was further proof of how insulated and oblivious to public sentiment the “corrupt” descendants of Myanmar’s military elite are. Many others said the nation’s martyrs did not sacrifice their lives at the Secretariat for the site to become a birthday party venue.

In February this year, a plan to host agrand bazaarat the site to promote ties with the US was “postponed indefinitely” following public criticism that the event would disgrace the site. The two-day “NightFest at Yangon’s Secretariat,” was slated to showcase Californian and Italian wines and other alcoholic beverages, a variety of cheeses and other American food, including Krispy Kreme doughnuts.

U Sun Oo, the president of the Myanmar Architect Council, told The Irrawaddy that the controversies surrounding the Secretariat were the result of the concerned authorities’ failure to issue clear guidelines on what is permissible when leasing space in the building to private companies.

“These are the consequences of leasing without a proper long-term vision,” he said, adding that, “A spa shouldn’t be hosted at a building like the Secretariat, which should be treated with respect. Everybody knows this.”

The building where Dé Béau Wellness Center is located in the Secretariat Courtyard / Htet Wai / The Irrawaddy

Annie Gan Giok Em, the owner of Dé Béau Wellness Center, told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday that she chose the Secretariat to house her business due to its uniqueness, and in response to Myanmar State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s invitation to Singaporeans to invest in the country

“Everybody, tourists also, want to come and visit here. In this sense, we can build up the Secretariat; is a very high-end [place] and tourists can [see] that the Yangon Secretariat is different,” she said.

Meanwhile, the “spa issue” has been raised in the Yangon regional parliament and with the regional government.

On Tuesday, following the public criticism, a lawmaker submitted a request to the parliament to summon the responsible persons for a hearing about the opening of the beauty center. Other lawmakers from the township in which the Secretariat is located have personally requested that regional parliament and government conduct an inspection of the site.

The Irrawaddy reporter Aung Thiha contributed to this story.

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