Dagon Highrise Opponents Blocked in Rangoon Parliament

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 10 June 2015

RANGOON — A lawmaker has failed in her efforts to compel the Rangoon Division Parliament to block five controversial developments near Shwedagon Pagoda, after an intervention from the divisional planning minister shut down debate on the matter.

Independent MP Dr Nyo Nyo Thin, who represents Bahan Township, brought a debate motion to Tuesday’s parliamentary sitting, urging the divisional government to halt the five projects, which are slated for construction on 72 acres of land abutting the historic pagoda.

“Will anyone in the Union government, or Rangoon government, or Myanmar Investment Commission take responsibility for possible damage to the pagoda and its surroundings?” Nyo Nyo Thin asked during Tuesday’s session.

Divisional Planning and Economic Development Minister Than Myint rose immediately afterward to declare that the land leased to the developers belonged to the military, and the matter therefore fell under the jurisdiction of the Union government.

The two Dagon City project sites, comprising 52 acres of the land allotted for the five developments, were awarded to local company Thu Kha Yadanar from the military’s Quartermaster General’s Office in 2013. The company, which operates a number of luxury hotels in partnership with the KBZ Group, is expected to pay an estimated US$221 million dollars over the course of the 70-year lease.

Following Than Myint’s comments, only two other lawmakers supported the debate motion, falling well short of the required 21 yes votes needed to take the matter further. Nyo Nyo Thin was incensed by the move, claiming the minister’s actions were contrary to parliamentary procedure.

“His actions were not in accordance with the bylaws for divisional parliaments,” she told The Irrawaddy. “He sprang to his feet before the parliament decided on whether to proceed with discussion. The bylaws state that the relevant minister can only speak to the issue after a discussion among lawmakers.”

Win Htein, a National Unity Party lawmaker who supported Nyo Nyo Thin’s debate motion, similarly told The Irrawaddy that Than Myint’s actions were unacceptable.

“His action hinders our chances to express our wishes,” he said. “As far as the project is concerned, I just want a thorough assessment from experts. I don’t want more traffic jams in the area and I don’t want any damage to Shwedagon’s sightlines.”

Than Myint could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.

Khin Hlaing, an elected member of the Yangon City Development Committee and an outspoken opponent of the developments, told The Irrawaddy he was unsurprised that debate on the projects was shut down.

“Just have a look at who dominates the Rangoon Parliament,” he said.

Of the legislature’s 122 members, 75 belong to the Union Solidarity and Development Party, the party of the incumbent Union government, and a further 30 are military appointees.

The five developments have aroused a storm of local opposition since the Myanmar Investment Commission issued a suspension notice on site work at the end of January.

A forum organized by the Association of Myanmar Architects last month raised concerns that construction work on the projects could affect the water table underneath Singuttara Hill, on which Shwedagon sits, and damage the foundations of the historic structure.

“We think that it’s a serious issue,” Maw Lin, the association’s vice-president, told The Irrawaddy on Wednesday. “We have urged a proper risk assessment. If they want to allow the projects then by all means, allow them somewhere else. The current site should be for the public.”

Marga Landmark, an international consortium with a 70 percent stake in the 22-acre Dagon City 1 mixed-use project, did not answer calls from The Irrawaddy on Wednesday. The group released a statement last month saying that construction work “will be carried out with the utmost care and due diligence without affecting the foundations of Singuttara Hill and the underground water.”

Also on Tuesday, Khin San Hlaing, a Lower House lawmaker for the opposition National League for Democracy, submitted a similar proposal to bring the five developments to a halt. Parliamentary Speaker Shwe Mann accepted the matter and the projects would be discussed in Naypyidaw within the next two weeks, she said.

“Allowing projects for sectional interests under the shadow of Shwedagon is not appropriate,” she said. “The government should be aware of the people’s concern.”