Commentary

Comfortable in the ‘Generals’ Village’, the UN and EU Lined Myanmar Military’s Pockets

By Aung Zaw 2 June 2021

Yangon’s Golden Valley (Shwe Taung Gyar) has seen its share of ups and downs. Located in Bahan Township, it is known as Yangon’s most exclusive neighborhood. During World War II, commanders of both the British and the Japanese occupying forces lived there. After independence, Myanmar’s politicians, including the generals who had fought against the British and Japanese, settled in the area alongside businessmen and other elites.

Under General Ne Win, wealthy ministers, politicians and retired generals moved in and built lavish residences for themselves, earning the Valley its nickname among Myanmar citizens—another Bogyoke Ywa (Generals’ Village) among the city’s existing ones.

Starting in 2012, Golden Valley saw a new golden age as the country opened up under the quasi-civilian government of U Thein Sein.

An influx of newcomers lent the neighborhood the air of a gold rush. International organizations, foreign companies, embassies, diplomats’ residences and United Nations offices all sprung up there.

Residential apartments, lakeside villas and houses in the Valley became highly sought after—as they did in all of Yangon’s prime spots—and of course the new tenants paid handsome rental fees.

And who are the landlords in Yangon’s most coveted patches of real estate? Inevitably, many are family members of military officers and business tycoons, including cronies of previous military regimes. Many of these businessmen were already making a fortune off the foreign investment that was then beginning to return to the country amid an easing of Western sanctions.

Likewise, in Yangon’s Ady Road (since renamed May Kha), foreign residents and companies and opulent restaurants mushroomed along with the surge in foreign investment and tourism over the past decade. The area had long been exclusive; dictator General Ne Win and his family lived there and it was off-limits to ordinary citizens. In the past, the grand residences and leafy compounds that line Yangon’s famous Inya Lake were heavily guarded and soldiers wouldn’t allow any visitors into the area.

On Yangon’s Ady Road, the EU’s ambassador to Myanmar rents an expensive, sumptuous villa from the family of former dictator Ne Win. / The Irrawaddy

The residence from which the notorious dictator Gen. Ne Win once lorded over the country and the population sits on the edge of Inya Lake. In an oft-told tale dating to the 1970s, the general is said to have stormed into the Inya Lake Hotel across from his residence one Christmas Eve. The reason? His evening gathering had been interrupted by the sound of a local rock and roll band named ELF that was providing entertainment for the hotel’s party that night.

A furious Gen. Ne Win and his uniformed entourage stormed into the ballroom and kicked down the band’s drum kit. He also showed off his martial arts skills, delivering karate chops to the hotel’s security guards and even a foreign diplomat who had been enjoying the show.

If he were alive today, the dictator would no doubt be surprised to discover that the ambassador of the EU now calls his residence home, and that he has wealthy foreign businessmen—a few of the many attracted by impoverished Myanmar’s investment potential—for neighbors. When Myanmar began to open up under U Thein Sein, the EU mission in Myanmar rented an expensive, sumptuous villa from the family of the former strongman, having done neither its homework nor any due diligence in agreeing to rent the location.

As Myanmar opened, the once quiet and secluded area quickly became a destination for international companies, UN agencies, Western governments and embassies looking to turn the neighborhood’s upmarket villas into office space and residences. A shortage in quality housing and Myanmar’s expected economic growth sent property prices and rents skyrocketing. May Kha residences are now valued in the millions of US dollars.

The EU joined a number of Western countries in establishing a diplomatic presence in Myanmar. The bloc opened its permanent mission to Myanmar in April 2012, following the relaxation of restrictions against the country and the international community’s rapid embrace of President U Thein Sein’s “reformist” government.

In 2013 and ’14 the extensive renovations to the luxurious May Kha residence of EU Ambassador Roland Kobia, a Belgian, did not go unnoticed and raised eyebrows among those familiar with Yangon’s rents, which were by then already extremely high. The rental fee of the residence has not been disclosed but given the area, it is estimated to be anywhere from US$10,000 to $20,000 a month.

When The Irrawaddy exposed the story of the EU ambassador’s residence in 2014, the envoy was displeased; Kobia instructed his office not to cooperate with The Irrawaddy.

To date, three EU ambassadors (Kobia, Kristian Schmidt and the incumbent, Ranieri Sabatucci) have checked in and lived there.

Then-EU Ambassador to Myanmar Roland Kobia (third from right) attends the opening ceremony of the EU-funded Myanmar National Crisis Management Center in Naypyitaw in 2014. / European External Action Service

Current Yangon-based diplomats say the residence will be relocated soon, but it is still unclear when. It is believed that EU officials are hunting for a new house for the ambassador, and this time they intend to make sure the new location is uncontroversial. “The EU ambassador wants to leave his current residence and is in search of a new place,” one Western diplomat said.

Some EU officials and diplomats acknowledge the controversy surrounding the residence and admit that it has become an albatross around the neck of the EU delegation in Myanmar.

It seems that after many years of handing over hefty rental fees to the late dictator’s descendants, the EU’s guilty conscience has finally gotten the better of it, and it has decided to move out of the compound.

Last year, the Delegation of the European Union to Myanmar relocated its office to the Kantharyar Centre Office Tower on the corner of Kan Yeik Thar Road and U Aung Myat Road in Yangon’s Mingalar Taung Nyunt Township.

But what was wrong with the previous EU office in Hledan Centre?

The center is owned by Asia World, a conglomerate founded with drug money by Lo Hsing Han, an ethnic Kokang Chinese warlord who once controlled one of Southeast Asia’s largest heroin trafficking operations. The EU had its previous office on the sixth floor.

Even looking beyond its history in the drug trade, as one of Myanmar’s largest conglomerates with interests in property, construction, transportation and retail, Asia World certainly has very close links to former and active military leaders. Controversy surrounded the construction of the center. The Myanmar Times reported in 2013 on a complaint from the former landowners that they were never paid the compensation they had been promised for vacating the 1.5-acre site in 2003.

Even before Myanmar began opening up, some European diplomats closely and prominently engaged and worked with Yangon-based pro-military scholars, researchers, writers and other groups of local elites who convinced them that Myanmar was opening up for good and that it was time to engage the regime and military, and to sever ties with exiled groups, border-based NGOs and advocacy groups, and other “troublemakers.”

Wasting no time, the EU showered praise on the government for its reforms.

One senior EU official in Brussels even gushed, “The pace of change has been breathtaking.” It was therefore deemed entirely acceptable to base the EU at the Hledan Centre.

But the EU was by no means alone in this.

One of the many offices nestled along leafy Inya Myaing Road in the famous Golden Valley is the Myanmar branch of the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF).

In 2014, UNICEF confirmed that it was renting the property from U Nyunt Tin, a retired general, one-time agriculture minister and former senior figure in Myanmar’s dictatorship, for the “very competitive” (in UNICEF’s words) rent of $87,000 a month—more than $1 million a year.

U Nyunt Tin and his family members have since left Myanmar and currently reside in a foreign country. A few years ago, reports emerged on social media that he and his family members had been spotted enjoying a helicopter tour of the famous harbor in Sydney. Or was he residing in Tokyo? (A number of retired generals and their family members are known to have quietly relocated to Japan.) Both countries are popular among former military families looking to spend their fortunes in peace.

In Myanmar, it is common practice for former and current generals to hire local agents or front men to conduct business on their behalf, including real estate transactions. This can make it difficult to know who owns which properties. Myanmar’s khaki leaders are in fact half soldiers and half businessmen: They have long held sway over both the political and economic spheres, and do not intend to relinquish this control now.

Thanks to the coup, they are firmly back in business.

Daw Khin Sanda Win, Ne Win’s daughter, honored the coup makers by attending this year’s Armed Forces Day commemoration. Her notorious sons have also made cash donations to Yangon-based commanders since the military takeover.

Considered Ne Win’s favorite daughter, Daw Khin Sanda Win played an influential role in the 1988 uprising, assisting her father and the new generation of generals who were given a green light to stage a bloody putsch on Sept. 18, 1988.

Today, the EU and Western governments loudly condemn the latest coup and have imposed sanctions against the regime; they have also shown support for the uprising known as the “Myanmar Spring” and for the Civil Disobedience Movement, which has seen large numbers of civil servants and some private-sector employees refuse to work under the regime.

Ironically, the police force for whom the EU had been providing crowd-control training since 2012—in order to modernize it in line with “international best practice and respect for human rights”—launched fatal crackdowns on peaceful protesters in late February and March. The bloc suspended the training in February after the country saw its largest popular protests against the regime. But the move came too late.

Police threaten a pregnant woman in Yangon in late February amid their crackdown on anti-regime protesters. / The Irrawaddy

Since the coup, the EU has imposed sanctions on the military regime’s leaders over their brutal suppression of peaceful demonstrations. The restrictive measures introduced by Brussels include a travel ban and asset freezes. The travel ban impedes listed officials from entering or transiting through EU territory, while the asset freeze covers their EU-based funds and other economic resources. In addition, EU citizens and companies are forbidden from making funds available to the listed individuals and entities.

On the ground, some EU diplomats in Yangon feel they have to demonstrate that they are not hypocrites and that there is nothing contradictory about the EU’s policies toward Myanmar.

The sad fact remains, however, that during the political opening up of the country, Myanmar’s retired generals, including Gen. Ne Win and his family members, made a killing off the EU and the UN via property deals. The EU, the UN and Western governments may bark loudly at the regime over its illegitimate coup and the mindless killing on the streets, but the generals and their families are laughing all the way to the bank.


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