Sawangwongse Yawnghwe, artist and grandson of Myanmar’s first president, Sao Shwe Thaike, has withdrawn his work from a European Union-funded exhibition in Yangon, opening next week, in protest at the EU’s continued decision to rent its official ambassador’s residence from the family of long-time Myanmar dictator General Ne Win.
The highly lucrative deal to rent the ambassador’s residence, first reported by The Irrawaddy, reportedly required special approval from Brussels due to the vast sums involved, according to EU insiders. Ne Win’s family has regularly received a tidy sum for renting out the residence since the first EU ambassador moved in shortly after the EU established a permanent diplomatic presence in Myanmar in 2012.
In a statement released this week, Sawangwongse explained his decision to pull his work, citing the dramatic events surrounding the arrest of his grandfather on the evening of Ne Win’s 1962 coup and the EU’s decision to subsidize Ne Win’s family’s opulent lifestyle.
On the eve of the 1962 coup, Ne Win dispatched troops to arrest Sao Shwe Thaike, who before becoming president had been the sawbwa, or hereditary ruler, of Yawngwe, now called Nyaung Shwe, in Shan State. The troops shot and killed his 16-year-old son Myee as well as a policeman patrolling the neighborhood on bicycle who was drawn by the commotion at the house. Sao Shwe Thaike was dragged away that night and died in detention some eight months after the arrest under circumstances which have never been fully explained.
After Sao Shwe Thaike’s death, Sawangwongse’s father Chao Tzang took to the hills alongside his mother the Mahadevi to launch an armed resistance movement, the Shan State Army (SSA). Sawangwongse was born in an SSA jungle camp before his family eventually relocated to Canada.
The statement from the artist also mentions that the EU allegedly rents office space from “a notorious crony company called Asia World, a business consortium built on drug money and plunder named in the recent United Nations Fact Finding Mission (FFM) report.”
Reached for comment in Holland, where he now lives, Sawangwongse said that he’s highly critical of several things the EU has done, including the decision to rent a luxurious home from Ne Win’s family. “This property was obviously obtained through illicit means. It should be immediately seized from Ne Win’s family and auctioned off, with the proceeds going to former political prisoners and Ne Win’s other victims,” he said.
In response to the artist’s statement, EU Ambassador Kristian Schmidt expressed disappointment and said that the exhibition was part of the EU’s policy in Myanmar to engage with the government on sensitive topics.
“The artist, by withdrawing from this exhibition, is really missing a great, great opportunity for engagement because this exhibition is an EU-funded exhibition that will point the finger at the need for justice,” Schmidt told The Irrawaddy on Friday. “In many ways it’s an example of the EU doing exactly what I understand the artist to be arguing for.”
The ambassador also said that the EU will move the ambassador’s delegation offices next year and avoid dealing with military-owned businesses.
“At the end of next year, our landlord will no longer be the current one. The issue is being addressed,” said Schmidt. “The opportunities and choice to work with legitimate, working companies is growing and we will certainly do everything we can to stay clear of companies that are owned by the military.”
Regarding his residence, Schmidt said, “I am proud that the EU residence is now a place where the EU hosts human rights and peace activists, journalists, artists and civil society.”
Sawangwongse has also taken issue with what he says is the hypocrisy of EU policy in Myanmar.
“I know the EU does a garden party every year where they give out human rights awards on the grounds of the ambassador’s residence. It’s the epitome of hypocrisy: giving millions to Ne Win’s family while at the same time claiming to help Burma’s transition to a democracy. I’m disgusted and I know many people in Burma are as well.”
“My family weren’t the only victims of Ne Win’s regime; the whole country was and it needs to be acknowledged that many of the issues we face now stem from Ne Win’s brutal rule and massive incompetence,” the artist said.
Sawangwongse’s statement also calls out the EU’s failure to push for justice in cases of documented allegations of war crimes in Shan, Kachin and Rakhine states.
“The EU has been proceeding with calls for accountability,” Schmidt said in response. “We do not understand how he can say the EU has failed to take any action. It’s blatantly not correct.”
Sawangwongse says he hopes his stance inspires others in Myanmar civil society to skip the cocktail party with diplomats and take action. “Right now there are 44 Burmese fishermen who have been stranded for years on a remote island in Indonesia after escaping slavery on the high seas. My message is simple: put down the champagne glass, cancel your capacity building seminar at the rip off hotel and go rescue them.”
Sawangwongse said he was also highly disturbed by the EU ambassador’s decision to attend a celebration last month of the anniversary of the Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Relief and Development (UEHRD), a highly controversial government-backed entity set up to redevelop land in Rakhine State where razed Rohingya villages once stood. “What message does Kristian Schmidt send by going there to the UEHRD party? Did he not get the memo about the UN Fact-Finding Mission and its conclusions that cronies were putting money into the UEHRD? It’s sickening. I’m sure Ne Win would approve,” said Sawangwongse.
The ambassador insisted that he attended only in his official capacity, along with his colleagues, and had no active role.
“I have been very clear in my discussions with the government that the focus by the Union Enterprise strictly on rebuilding roads and resettlement centers, without focusing on accountability and rights of the Rohingya, in our view will not work,” Schmidt told The Irrawaddy.
Correction Notice: The previous version of the story wrongly stated that the EU ambassador would be changing his residence next year. In fact, the EU will be moving its delegation offices next year, not the ambassador’s residence.