Online Backlash Over Secretariat Soirée

By Kyaw Phyo Tha & San Yamin Aung 23 March 2015

RANGOON — The use of Rangoon’s historically treasured Secretariat building as venue for the birthday party of a former ruling general’s daughter has set off a wave of online criticism, after photos of the soirée circulated on Facebook over the weekend.

On Saturday evening Thi Thi Tun, the daughter of former Lt-Gen Tun Kyi, and her friends gathered for a birthday party in the courtyard of the colonial-era complex where Burma’s independence leader Gen. Aung San and six of his interim cabinet members were assassinated 68 years ago.

Invitees were largely celebrities or had ties to military circles, including the grandson of the country’s former dictator Gen. Ne Win, according to an individual who attended the party and is close to the Tun Kyi family.

“It was like any other birthday party,” she said. “I didn’t see Uncle Tun Kyi and his wife there, probably because I was late. But I heard uncle [Tun Kyi] is not feeling well.”

Tun Kyi, Burma’s former commerce minister, was forced to resign in 1997 amid corruption allegations.

The online posting of pictures from the event by Ne Win’s grandson Aye Ne Win and others brought a barrage of criticism from Burmese Facebook users, including the country’s Information Minister Ye Htut.

“I’m not pleased with what happened [at the Secretariat]. As I understand it, renovation of the complex is in cooperation with Ko Thant Myint-U’s YHT [Yangon Heritage Trust]. So YHT should review that,” read a post on the Facebook account of Ye Htut, who also serves as presidential spokesman.

The Yangon Heritage Trust (YHT), which was founded by the historian Thant Myint-U, worked with the Anawmar Art Group, which was selected as winner of the Secretariat tender in 2012, to conduct a technical study of potential renovation methods and building use options.

The Secretariat is now under renovation solely supervised by Anawmar Art Group, the owners of which are family members of Tun Kyi by marriage.

YHT responded to the minister’s comments on Facebook, saying last year the government asked them to work with the Anawmar Group on a Conservation Management Plan (CMP), which would provide specific guidance especially on the use of the legislative chamber and the cabinet room where Aung San and his colleagues were assassinated. That plan also makes clear that public access to the complex should be provided, YHT stated.

“YHT has no control over the site. We have not been part of any decision-making in relation to its tender or leasing. Only in late 2014 we were brought in to help draft the CMP, and we thought it a good opportunity to assist in setting conservation guidelines for the proper management of change at the Secretariat Complex,” YHT stated.

The heritage organization did not explicitly condemn party organizers’ choice of venue.

Le Yee Soe, the Anawmar Group director as well as the daughter-in-law of Thi Thi Tun, did not respond to request for comment.

She told The Irrawaddy in January that the group planned to convert part of the dilapidated colonial structure into an art museum and put US$50 million toward its renovation.

One Facebook user posted that the birthday party was further proof of how insulated and oblivious to public sentiment the “corrupt” descendants of Burma’s military elite were. Another user stated that the nation’s martyrs did not sacrifice their lives at the Secretariat for the site to become a birthday party venue.

Government plans to privatize many of the former capital’s state-owned colonial buildings were announced in December 2011, more than half a decade after all Union government ministries moved their offices to the purpose-built capital Naypyidaw beginning in 2005. The Secretariat was among the buildings slated for privatization.

Maw Lin, vice president of the Association for Myanmar Architects, told The Irrawaddy that use of the Secretariat for Saturday’s private function was “highly inappropriate.”

“Although it was handed over for renovation, ownership was not transferred,” he said. “This is a place of historical heritage, cultural heritage and urban heritage. And also, this is a private affair—there are hotels to hold such an event but instead of holding in a hotel, having such a personal party at such a heritage site is ugly.”

Aye Ne Win, evidently, did not agree, describing the birthday bash as “an excellent idea” in a Facebook post accompanying photos of the event.

“A strong scent of nostalgia was very much in the atmosphere this evening at Rangoon’s Secretariat where giants of Burmese political society deliberated and decided the country’s most important issues,” read the post.