RANGOON — International developer Marga Landmark is likely to return nearly half of the land granted by the former government in compensation for the 2015 cancellation of a project near Rangoon’s Shwedagon Pagoda, a senior government official told The Irrawaddy.
According to the Department of Science and Technology Permanent Secretary Kyaw Zwa Soe, the land is designated to be used to establish Burma’s first research center for metrology, the scientific study of measurement.
The move comes at a time when the new National League for Democracy (NLD) government is trying to attract substantial foreign direct investment—to boost its economy and update its infrastructure—while at the same time placing the frequently opaque and controversial deals made by the previous government under review.
The latter policy has resulted in some high profile cancellations, which some worry may scare off investors in a country that has experienced a dramatic shift in executive power.
Stretching out across Rangoon’s Inya Lake near the Sedona Hotel, 17.7 acres of land held by the Department of Research and Innovation under the (now defunct) Ministry of Science and Technology was granted to Marga Landmark in February.
Under the previous government of President Thein Sein, the Myanmar Investment Commission granted this land in compensation after the US$300 million multi-use Dagon City 1 commercial development was halted by the government in July last year, following a public outcry over its proximity to Shwedagon Pagoda, Burma’s holiest Buddhist site.
After the NLD government assumed power in April, the Ministry of Science and Technology was transformed into the “Department of Science and Technology” under the Ministry of Education.
Kyaw Zwa Soe, the department’s permanent secretary, said the ministry had complained about the compensatory land grant to the new government as well as to the Union Parliament’s Legal Affairs and Special Cases Assessment Commission.
“So far we have learned that the half of the land we had released will come back to us,” he told The Irrawaddy on Thursday.
They had complained, he said, because the land grant formed part of more than 33 acres deemed “historic” because it was the site of Burma’s first industrial research department.
Upon receiving the department’s complaint, the government said they would review the case and attempt to retrieve half of the land grant. “So, we are hopeful that this land will come back to us,” he said.
Founded in 1947, the year before Burma gained independence from the British, the State Industrial Research Institute was charged with furthering industrial development in an independent Burma.
Independence hero Gen Aung San, prior to his assassination the same year, reportedly reserved more than 33 acres for the institute at the corner of Kabar Aye Pagoda Road and Thitsar Road in Yankin Township.
Burma’s first atomic research department was housed in the institute from 1956, by which time it had been renamed the Union of Burma Applied Research Institute. The institute was also the forerunner to current governmental departments of Research and Innovation and of Science and Technology.
“If we get the land back, it will be the site for a sophisticated lab, depending on the budget we receive,” said permanent secretary Kyaw Zwa Soe, referring to the establishment of Burma’s first metrology research center, planned since 2014.
Currently, nearly half of the total land area is obscured by high green fences, which demarcate Marga Landmark’s development site.
During an interview with state-run newspaper The Mirror in February, Myanmar Investment Committee Secretary Aung Naing Oo said, “The ministry shared the land [to Marga Landmark] from what they had,” referring to the 33-plus acres.
But sources in the ministry told a different story.
A senior official from the Department of Research and Innovation said they had to surrender the land to the Department of Urban and Housing Development under the Ministry of Construction—in late 2015 when the late Ko Ko Oo was still minister—before the land was granted to the developer in February with the MIC’s approval
The senior official added that a few developers had previously approached the late minister in pursuit of the land but “he refused them all.”
“This time, he was very surprised, but he could do nothing because the order came from upstairs,” said the senior official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not an official spokesman for the department.
The senior official said he had been unhappy to see the land allocated to Marga Landmark for its commercial development project.
“But it was beyond our scope. We are government employees and we have to do as we are told,” he said, adding that, “The whole area should be a place for scientific research, as it was planned to be.”
On Thursday, Myanmar Investment Committee Secretary Aung Naing Oo was not available for comment.
Zin Mar Aung, a lawmaker for Rangoon’s Yankin Township in the Lower House of the Union Parliament, was concerned that the new government not give a bad impression to international investors—especially those who would invest with “responsibility and accountability.”
“For this case, as far as I am concerned, it depends on how the government and the company [Marga Landmark] deal with it,” the lawmaker said.
“The company will want to keep the project going. Also, the government doesn’t want to deter international investment. They have to compromise. I think it’d be better for both sides to think longer term.”