New European Residents in Ne Win’s Old Neighborhood of Villains

By Aung Zaw 31 May 2014

The old Ady Road, where Burma’s late dictator Gen Ne Win once lived, has witnessed ups and downs during the country’s history. During his rule, the grand and leafy residences on Rangoon’s famous Inya Lake were heavily guarded and soldiers wouldn’t allow any visitors in the area.

After Ne Win’s fall from power and his death in 2002, the area lost much of its allure, but access remained largely restricted and even today parts are closed off with a stop sign and a police checkpoint. The former strongman’s relatives and daughters continue to live there and own several properties on Ady Road, which has since been renamed May Kha Road.

With the opening up of Burma the once quiet and secluded area has quickly become an upmarket villa neighborhood, as a growing number of international companies, UN agencies, Western governments and embassies rushing into the country are seeking suitable office space and residences. A shortage in quality housing and Burma’s expected economic growth has set property and rent prices skyrocketing, and these days Ady Road residences are valued in millions of US dollars.

Last year, at one of the residences in a block of properties owned by Ne Win’s relatives (numbers 19 to 30) large-scale renovations began. Burmese workers at the site said they had been instructed to upgrade a house next to the late general’s home to international standards.

The new neighbor and renter of the Ne Win family was someone little known in Burma at the time, but important to the government in Naypyidaw: Roland Kobia, a Belgian, who was recently appointed as the European Union’s ambassador to Burma. A lawyer by training, his last posting was in Azerbaijan. One of his missions, according to a press briefing, was to advance Burma-EU relations in the coming years and to establish a lasting relationship.

The EU opened a permanent mission in Burma in April 2012, following the relaxation of restrictions against the country and the international community’s rapid embrace of President Thein Sein’s reformist government.

Aung Zaw is founder and editor of the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]
Aung Zaw is founder and editor of the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]

The house next to the EU Ambassador’s home was where Ne Win received state visitors, held numerous parties and from where he ordered armed forces to clamp down on the 1988 streets protests.

In the late 1950s, then-Burma Army Chief Ne Win and his wife Khin May Than decided to live on Ady Road, an area which had many rich and prominent local and foreign residents. The house he built was made with tiles, furniture and an in-house stereo system imported from Hong Kong since only international quality would do for his wife.

After his 1962 coup, he ordered his feared spy unit to screen all residents and forced the eviction of those not considered loyal to the new regime. When he expelled all foreigners from Burma, Ady Road residents John Sydenham Furnivall (better known in Burma as J.S Furnivall) and G.H. Luce, both British historians, also left.

Only Ne Win’s most trusted ministers and aides were ultimately allowed to live there. After his fall from power in 1988, Ne Win continued to live on Ady Road where he and his favorite daughter Khin Sandar Win stayed under house arrest until his death in 2002. His three grandsons were put in prison.

All were gradually freed, three of Ne Win’s grandsons were released last year, and we can be sure that Burma’s former first family still controls much wealth and property—the latter undoubtedly rising in value as a result of Burma’s opening up.

The extensive renovations and sumptuous residence of the EU Ambassador Kobia on Ady Road have not gone unnoticed and raised questions among those familiar with the extremely high rent rates in Rangoon.

Some expats and Burmese working with the United Nations and international NGOs have remarked on the costs of renting the lakeside mansion, where monthly rent fees are believed to hover between US$80,000 and $100,000, or more

A foreign journalist familiar with the EU and its growing relations with Burma’s reformist government said, “The regulations at the EU headquarters set a cap on rental fees but these had to be rewritten in order to accommodate the cost of the new ambassador’s residence [in Rangoon] because it was so high. This was the first time that the EU had done this.”

An expat who visited the residence said, “The EU ambassador’s house, is beautiful, but I don’t think anyone did due diligence on that. I do not even think they can say it was ‘under market price.”

The xenophobic strongman Ne Win, who expelled all foreigners after his 1962 coup, would surely be baffled to hear that his relatives are renting properties around his old home to foreign diplomats for a million dollar per year.

In the wake of Brussels’ embrace of President Thein Sein’s government, the European Commission’s expanding mission in Burma has also required new office space and the commission has moved into the sixth floor of the Hledan Centre in Rangoon.

Here, the EU also struggled to avoid handing money to influential figures from Burma’s dark past, as 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.

He passed away in Burma last year and his son Steven Law and Singaporean wife, Cecilia Ng now run Asia World. As one of Burma’s largest conglomerates with interests in property, construction, transportation, retail, the company no doubt has very close links to former regime members and current government leaders.

Controversy also surrounded the construction of the center as former landowners complained that they were never given the promised compensation for vacating the 1.5 acre site in 2003. The Myanmar Times reported last that Asia World has still not offered the former owners apartments in the center.

Some foreign NGOs workers told me they were dismayed to learn that the new EC office was in Hledan Centre.  One told me, “It’s EU tax payer money meant for the Myanmar people and where is the transparency here?”