YANGON – The Myanmar Ethnic Entrepreneurs Association (MEEA) has urged the Ethnic Affairs Ministry to take over Yangon’s National Races Village from the Ministry of Agriculture so that the site can be developed with international partners.
The 220-hectare park is located near the Thanlyin-Yangon Bridge in Thaketa Township. It features replicas of houses in the styles of the eight major national races, and of national landmarks such as Mon State’s Golden Rock Pagoda (also known as Kyaiktiyo Pagoda); Karen State’s Mount Zwegabin; and Htukkanthein Temple in Rakhine State’s Mrauk-U Township. Opened in 2002, the site was the brainchild of the then chief of Myanmar Intelligence, Khin Nyunt. Two years later, he was purged and jailed by military dictator Than Shwe.
The village was intended to promote national unity by offering a vision of ethnic harmony between the various races of Myanmar.
MEEA currently has 27 core members, including a number of prominent businessmen. Its steering committee includes chairman U Yaw Satt, the owner of the Shwe Leik Pyar Hotel near Kandawgyi Lake and operator of a gem mining business in Mogok; Lahpai Khun Hsar; U Shwe Hein, who operates a business in the Thilawa Special Economic Zone (SEZ); and Rakhine businessman U Aye Win. Dr. Aung Htun Thet, chief coordinator of the Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement and Development in Rakhine, and U Zaw Aye Maung, Yangon Region’s Minister for Rakhine Ethnic Affairs and a member of the Arakan National Party, are patrons of the association.
The organization’s stated goal is to support traditional ethnic businesspeople both locally and internationally and to act as a business facilitator, rather than seeking to make a profit itself. In particular, it was set up to help ethnic small-business operators find markets in Myanmar and overseas, and to offer them financial and technical support.
However, speaking on condition of anonymity, a credible source close to MEEA told The Irrawaddy: “Let me frankly tell you that this is just trying to exploit the name of the Ethnic Entrepreneurs Association for their own interests. They are always talking about doing business at every single meeting, rather than discussing matters [related to assisting the community],” he said.
The source pointed out that if the leading committee members, mostly wealthy businessmen, were serious about helping ethnic entrepreneurs, they would help to fund the association. To the contrary, far from contributing cash, the wealthy team members are seeking to collect 10 million kyats as a membership fee from each ethnic group, including the Rakhine, Chin, Kachin and Karen. Some members of the steering committee are not satisfied with this move, believing MEEA is beginning to act like a commercial enterprise, the source said.
MEEA executive committee member U Min Banyar San confirmed the plan to develop the National Races Village during a phone interview with The Irrawaddy last week. He is the son of Union Ethnic Affairs Minister U Naing Thet Lwin, whose lackluster performance in the role has drawn criticism that he is not carrying his weight as part of State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s handpicked Union government team.
While some sources on the committee voiced criticisms of the plan to The Irrawaddy, committee member Min Banyar San argued that the association is not asking the Union government to directly hand over the park’s large grounds for commercial purposes. If supervision of the park were handed over to the Union Ethnic Affairs Ministry, the association would advise the ministry on running it as a joint-venture project, he said.
The Irrawaddy was shown a document listing the decisions made by MEEA’s executive committee at a meeting in the UMFCCI building held early this month. The document includes a proposal to request 6 acres of land situated on Ahlone Road, a prime location near People’s Park, from the Yangon government to establish an ethnic people’s convention center, and suggests the steering committee make Yangon State Chief Minister U Phyo Min Thein another patron of the organization. It also outlines plans to establish a public bank to represent MEEA in line with Central Bank rules and regulations. Central Bank provisions require interested parties in the establishment of a bank to deposit at least 20 billion kyats. U Min Banyar San also said that a proposal for the location of a new MEEA office was made by patron U Zaw Aye Maung.
“We want to construct an ethnic people’s center [on 6 acres] which will contain a theater to exhibit cultural heritage and traditional costumes. Basically, people will have a place to visit where they can try ethnic foods and dress, and see traditional dances in Yangon,” U Min Banyar San said.
He confirmed the details of the plan seen in the document but said that they are still being worked out. If the regional government approved the plan for a convention center, the association intends to construct a theater in which to hold cultural exchange programs for various ethnic groups. MEEA would also promote Myanmar’s ethnic cultures in the international arena, he said. According to him, the organization has still not been properly registered with the government. It is expected to hold a grand launch ceremony in July. After that it plans to recruit new members from each ethnic region and elect a new steering board and chairman.
Despite the direct involvement of Yangon Region’s minister for Rakhine ethnic affairs, U Zaw Aye Maung, in the association, ethnic affairs ministers in Mon and Rakhine states said they were unaware of the organization’s structure, goals or business plan. U Aung Myint Khine, Mon State’s minister for Karen ethnic affairs, told The Irrawaddy over the phone on Wednesday that he had heard a few things about MEEA, as U Min Banyar San had lobbied businessmen in Mon State a few months ago. He suggested the association prioritize the promotion of ethnic cultural activities and indigenous people’s rights, along with boosting small and medium-sized businesses and farms in ethnic regions, instead of going into business itself.
“That association is not under government management. Seeking opportunities under the guise of being a civil society organization or promoting ethnic people’s rights seems wrong to me,” U Aung Myint Khine said.