Outcry Continues Over UN Office Rents in Rangoon

By Lin Thant 12 June 2014

Public outcry continues after news broke last month that Unicef pays US$87,000 per month for its Rangoon office, which is owned by the relative of a former general. The World Health Organization (WHO) also admitted to paying $79,000 per month for its office in the country’s biggest city, while unconfirmed reports suggest that the EU ambassador’s residence belongs to a relative of the late dictator Gen. Ne Win. Burmese activists and politicians have responded with concern.

Min Ko Naing, a leader of the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society:

“People have been questioning the international aid agencies’ use of funding, including the UN, as their spending doesn’t reach those who really need it. They spend exorbitantly on expensive cars and real estate rents. The result is they rarely earn respect from the people, who only rely on them as a last resort. The UN needs to review this.

“Secondly, it doesn’t make sense for some people to earn such an enormous amount of money in this country. The government has to investigate how they came to own these kinds of properties—what did they do to get it?”

Khon Ja, activist with the Kachin Peace Network, a humanitarian group

“I tried to help Unicef find its office, and I learned that nearly all decent properties are in the hands of ex-military men. It was quite rare for them to be owned by ordinary people. The Unicef case is something that shouldn’t happen, but we don’t have enough properties or office spaces. If we have enough, they are rarely free from generals and drug lords. As far as I’m concerned, nearly all big buildings are in their hands.

“Unicef took a long time to find a property that was not owned by someone on a blacklist, but they didn’t have many options. I have to blame corruption and the system in the country that somewhat keeps corruption alive. The government should intervene to create options for those who are looking for properties.”

Moe Thee Zun, ex-president of the Democratic Party for a New Society and former president of the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF)

“Unief is a UN agency funded by international donor money, and the agency’s spending on property is a waste of that funding. Instead of fighting poverty in Burma, they are fueling crony capitalism in the country. Plus, spending a lot on rent is somewhat putting the local property market into ruin. We have vacant rooms and buildings in Burma. When I was in Rangoon, I found vacant buildings standing on land that had been confiscated by the army—for example, the USDP [Union Solidarity and Development Party] office or the military headquarters in Rangoon. If they are put on lease, the government could even earn money.”

Phyu Phyu Thin, a lawmaker from the National League for Democracy (NLD) and an HIV/AIDS activist

“In my opinion, humanitarian aid is based on what donors give. If you give aid effectively to those who need it, your mission will succeed. If you spend a lot on [renting] a building for your project, the people who need assistance will not get as much aid as they need. If so, the project is a failure. International agencies and businesses that want to work in Burma should be mindful to ensure that their activities don’t help the dictatorship or anyone connected to it.”

Khin Ohnmar, a human rights and women’s affairs activist

“When they look for an office space that would suit their needs in Rangoon, it is hard for international organizations and diplomats to stay away from cronies and families of former generals, who monopolize the best of the city’s property market. But their exorbitant spending on [renting] an office is questionable if the money used comes from the budget aimed for development of Burma and its people.

“Ethically, it’s quite ugly because it’s like the international community is helping to enrich a group of people who have a bad human rights record by paying them with funding that is supposed to help the people…

“We used to think transparency and accountability were lost in Burma, where corruption is rampant in the government and among cronies. Now it’s more than that. International programs for development, poverty elimination and the peace process are rushing to Burma. With no transparency, we have no idea what they are doing and how much they are spending. It is a headache for us.”