Pandal Scandal: Water Festival Party Pavilions Sold on the Black Market

By Kyaw Hsu Mon 30 March 2015

RANGOON — It’s the biggest party in Burma, and some Rangoon moguls will spare no expense to get in on it. Local businesspeople who supply the city with ‘pandals’ every year during Thingyan celebrations said a new cap on party permits has exacerbated black market sales.

Pandals, large stages that people pay to drink and dance on as they douse passers-by with fire hoses, are a staple of Thingyan, the Burmese New Year holiday commonly referred to as Water Festival. But the good times aren’t as free as they appear. Rangoon’s municipal governing body, Yangon City development Committee (YCDC), each year issues permits to local entrepreneurs to build and oversee the raucous party stations, situated in various parts of the city.

While the committee issued 57 permits in 2014, that number plummeted to 36 this year. Many of the permit-holders, who are selected by lottery, are turning to the black market to squeeze a bit more cash out of the event. Several applicants said that the permits are now being leased out for up to 60 million kyats—a staggering US$60,000—for some of the more popular locations.

“I heard from my friends that permit leasing fees are up to 60 million kyats on Kaba Aye Pagoda Road, which more people want to go to than Pyay and Kandawgyi roads,” said Thet Khant Oo, who was awarded one of the coveted permits after trying for several years. He said the YCDC ordinarily allows the construction of large pandals—up to about 120 by 40 feet—mostly on those three roads, where people like to congregate. A pandal on that scale, he said, could cost up to 70 million kyats to build, so this year’s engorged permit fees might make it difficult to break even.

A pandal hopeful known by his nickname, Willis, told The Irrawaddy that the black market exchange in permits is nothing new, but in years past it has at least been more affordable. Willis leased a spot last year for about 30 million kyats. He said if this year’s price were comparable, he “might pay it.”

“I think it’s because the YCDC is allowing less pavilions this year,” he said. “I hope at least we can enjoy the Water Festival even we can’t make a profit this year.”

The YCDC defended the cuts on the grounds that the congested former capital has a number of “difficult areas.” Soe Thein Aung, deputy head of the city’s road and bridge department, said that the YCDC will be monitoring the festival and that rule-breakers will be punished accordingly.

Leasing permits is illegal, but the penalties are hardly deterrent. The YCDC doesn’t actually make a profit from the permits; when an applicant wins one, they hand over a deposit of six to 10 million kyats, depending on the size of their stage. Each permit winner also pays a non-refundable 2 million kyats for sanitation and water supply.

If permit holders are found to have leased the rights to their location, Soe Thein Aung said, the permit will be revoked and they will be charged 3 million kyats, to be withdrawn from the deposit—a drop in the bucket compared to what they could receive from a lessee.

Soe Thein Aung said that this year’s Water Festival will feature 13 pandals on Kaba Aye Road, 11 on Kandawgyi and 12 others scattered about the city. The celebrations will be held from Apr. 13 to 16. Rangoon is the biggest destination for the Thingyan Water Festival, followed by Mandalay and Naypyidaw.

This year’s dramatic blow to the number of permitted large pandals wasn’t wholly out of the blue. While the YCDC allowed 57 in 2014—that was a big increase from the previous year, when there were only 34.