Govt Cancels Controversial Development Near Shwedagon

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 8 July 2015

RANGOON — Following months of public outcry, the government announced on state television Tuesday night that five planned developments in Rangoon will be cancelled.

The mixed-use project, which is backed by international investors and includes the high-profile Dagon City luxury condominium building, was slated to be built in the shadow of the city’s most sacred site, the Shwedagon Pagoda.

Critics of the project claimed that such a major undertaking so close to the pagoda could cause structural damage, calling for a full stop to construction that was already underway for some of the structures.

In a rare response to public criticism, the government of President Thein Sein ordered a “complete shutdown” of the project, announcing that a cancellation agreement had been reached with the developers.

The announcement said the decision was reached after “people and experts” expressed concern that the project could affect the stability and strength of the sacred monument, and that both the Myanmar Investment Commission (MIC) and the Ministry of Defense—the original owner of the 71-acre property—recommended cancellation.

“The government also does not want to damage the religious edifices and cultural heritages including the Shwedagon Pagoda for development and held negotiations with the companies to cancel the projects,” the statement said.

The announcement also said that the government will continue negotiations with investors to insure that they are fairly compensated for their losses.

President’s Office Director Zaw Htay told The Irrawaddy on Wednesday that the affected developers—Shwetaung Development, Adventure Myanmar Tours and Incentives, Thukha Yadana and Marga Landmark Development—will likely be offered different properties further from the site.

Situated in Rangoon’s Dagon Township, the proposed development complex included a five-star hotel, serviced and residential apartments and a shopping complex. Construction began last year on the best known component of the project, Dagon City 1, a US$300 million joint venture between the international firm Marga Landmark and local partner Thukha Yadana.

Work has been stalled since January, however, amid a reassessment of the project’s design and its proximity to the Shwedagon.

Criticism of Dagon City and the four other related projects intensified in the months since, leading to the formation of the Society to Protect the Shwedagon, an advocacy group established by the Buddhist nationalist group Ma Ba Tha. The society, comprising both monks and laypeople, launched a petition campaign and threatened nationwide protests if the government did not step in to halt the projects.

The director of Thukha Yadana, Thaung Htike Min, told The Irrawaddy on Wednesday that the company has accepted the government’s cancellation plan and will continue negotiations with the investment commission.

“Our international partner [Marga Landmark] also understands the situation the government is facing now, so they have agreed to cancel this project,” Thaung Htike Min said. “All investors had negotiations [about cancellation] with the MIC before the statement was released, and there will be more discussions.”

Tuesday’s announcement was welcomed by some of the city’s development experts, some of whom had previously advocated for preserving the city’s culture and architectural heritage while promoting urban development.

Thant Myint-U, the founder of Yangon Heritage Trust, said the cancellation was “very good news,” calling the decision a “victory for conservation” and a chance for developers to restructure their vision for the city.

“The Shwedagon Pagoda should not only be protected, it should be at the very center of any vision for Yangon’s future,” he said. “The city urgently needs private as well as public investment, but new development should be in its proper place, ideally along new mass transit hubs, and not anywhere in the immediate vicinity of the Shwedagon.”