No Room for ’88 Museum, Says Company Renovating Yangon Secretariat

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 26 July 2019

YANGON—An art group that is renovating Yangon’s historic Secretariat has declined to make space available in the building for a memorial hall devoted to telling the story of the nationwide pro-democracy demonstrations in 1988 and their aftermath.

The group’s response followed a meeting on Monday between Yangon Chief Minister U Phyo Min Thein, members of the ’88 Museum Committee and representatives of the Anawmar Art Group to negotiate whether the British colonial-era complex near downtown would be able to house a venue for the museum. No decision was reached on that day, according to participants at the meeting.

Thirty-one years ago on Aug. 8, people from all walks of life all over the country took to the streets to demand democracy and call on authorities to abolish the one-party rule of then dictator Ne Win.

Named after the nationwide protest on that day, the 8888 uprising was a major milestone in Myanmar’s modern political history. Political analysts at home and abroad agree that, despite ending in a bloody military coup, the uprising raised the public’s political awareness, which in turn paved the way for the changes that would bring Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) to power 28 years later.

In 2015, on the 27th anniversary of the uprising, a temporary museum to commemorate the historic event was first opened in Yangon by student activists who were veterans of the uprising.

At the time, the two-story temporary memorial hall was decorated with pictures taken on the day the uprising began and during the suppression of the protests six weeks later on Sept. 18, the day the military staged a coup. In the photos, columns of students, monks and members of the public are seen marching on streets all over Myanmar. Some show soldiers charged the demonstrators, leaving a trail of dead bodies in their wake. Also on display were some of the headbands and armbands worn during the demonstrations, along with a Gestetner duplicating machine used to print anti-government leaflets during the uprising. Currently, the museum is looking for a new location, as its tenancy has expired.

U Ye Naing Aung, the museum’s spokesperson, told The Irrawaddy that the museum committee is interested in the Secretariat due to its location close to downtown, which—unlike the museum’s current site—has the potential to attract more visitors, including foreigners.

The Secretariat is now being renovated by the Anawmar Group, which is owned by family members of former junta General Tun Kyi. In 2012, the group won the rights from the Myanmar Investment Commission to restore the building’s architecture and preserve it as a long-term venue to host the arts, with a cultural center and a museum dedicated to Myanmar independence leader General Aung San and members of his cabinet, who were assassinated inside the building in 1947.

Daw Ngu Kay Khaing, chief operations officer of Anawmar Art Group, told The Irrawaddy on Friday that the company is not ready to host a venue for the ’88 Museum as renovation work on the building’s west wing, the area designated for museums, is ongoing.

“Even when all the work is completed, the area is designated for a museum for the martyrs, according to our original plan. [Housing] the ’88 Museum would be difficult for us, as it is not in line with our concept,” she said.

U Ye Naing Aung told The Irrawaddy on Friday that Anawmar first welcomed his request when he approached the group to see if there was any space available for rent at the Secretariat for the ’88 Museum.

“They said it would be fine only when the chief minister approved,” he said.

The spokesperson continued that during the three-party meeting on Monday, the chief minster agreed to the request and Anawmar said they would reply after meeting with their senior officials.

“I was surprised by their denial but it’s their right,” U Ye Naing Aung said.

“But it’s sad to learn that there is no room for a museum dedicated to the historic ’88 uprising at the historic Secretariat.”