Myanmar’s Nouveau Riche Wear Their Wealth on Their Sleeves

By The Irrawaddy 20 March 2020

YANGON—When it comes to choosing ways to show off their wealth, Myanmar’s “haves” are spoiled for choice.

Some go with lavish properties, while others prefer luxury goods. Apparently bored with these tried-and-true methods, however, some of Myanmar’s wealthiest citizens recently found a more creative approach to extravagant displays of wealth—literally wearing their riches.

The garments Ko Chan Myae Swe wore on the day his title was conferred. / Shartra Couture

Myanmar is a land of contradictions. Despite its Least Developed Country (LDC) status, it is the second-most generous country in the world—after the United States—according to CAF’s World Giving Index for 2019, which measured “giving trends” over the previous decade. According to a recent remark by the country’s de facto leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, about 30 percent of Myanmar’s population lives below the poverty line. This statistic notwithstanding, the Southeast Asian country is home to a surprisingly large group of people whose wealth would be envied anywhere.

If you’re familiar with the names of some of Myanmar’s long-established tycoons, please forget them while reading this. Of course, they are still rich, but they belong to yesterday. There are some new kids in town!

Members of this nouveau riche class came to the public’s attention last week during an annual official ceremony in Naypyitaw to confer honorary religious titles on 141 men and women for their contributions to the welfare of Buddhism across the country. To qualify for the titles, would-be honorees must, among other things, make their living legally, and have contributed a minimum of 300 million kyats (nearly US$210,000) to causes promoting the welfare of the religion.

Ko Chan Myae Swe wears a sarong decorated with a golden dancing peacock on one of the rehearsal days. / Kansuho

For some honorees, like Ko Chan Myae Swe, the event was not only an occasion to receive some official recognition, but also an opportunity to let other people know just how much they possess.

The 33-year-old chairman of a Yangon-based construction company and jewelry shop attended the event in a traditional silk costume, including a sarong embellished with 1.6 kilograms of gold and 180 rubies. The price tag for the outfit? 4 billion kyats ($2.8 million), according to its designer, Shartra of Shartra Couture.

The designer said that when he was approached by Ko Chan Myae Swe about the costume, he had no idea he would be working something so valuable, adding that each gem on the garment is worth 20 million kyats.

Writing on his Facebook page, Shartra admitted to being really proud of his creation.

“I am not sure I will get a chance to do it again,” he said.

Ma Po Ei Phyu Maung / Amazing Grace

In addition to the outfit for the big day, the designer created another two for Ko Chan Myae Swe to wear on two rehearsal days for the event. These included a sarong decorated with a dancing peacock in gold and 80 rubies. Another with 200 sapphires and gold thread also cost nearly 4 billion kyats.

Another of the nouveau riche honorees was Ma Po Ei Phyu Maung. Women in attendance envied her not just for her youth, elegance and beauty, but also for her ruby-studded dress and matching shawl. While the price tag for the gem-strewn sarong and shawl is unknown, they are surely worth a fortune.

The above examples offer just a glimpse of the younger generation of Myanmar’s mega-wealthy. You will see others. As for the title-conferring ceremony, it could be viewed as an event to officially recognize the extreme wealth of these laymen and laywomen—if you are not rich enough to donate at least 300 million kyats, you are not entitled to the honor.

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