Speaking Out Against the Shwedagon Highrise Projects
By Kyaw Zwa Moe 11 July 2015
The president’s decision on Tuesday evening to terminate the controversial highrise projects near Shwedagon, the country’s most well-known and revered pagoda, offered a degree of relief for many Burmese who treasure their cultural and historical heritage.
Our newsroom felt even greater relief—because we have a story behind the headlines.
On one late afternoon in April this year, our Irrawaddy office in Rangoon received a phone call from a public relations company affiliated with Marga Landmark, the international firm behind the high-profile Dagon City 1 project, a US$300 million joint venture with local partner Thukha Yadana.
The PR company employee informed The Irrawaddy that Marga Landamark was preparing a lawsuit against one of our reporters who continuously covered the five controversial projects which critics argue would have blocked sightlines to the sacred Shwedagon Pagoda.
The caller said the stories published in The Irrawaddy had damaged the company’s image.
We attempted to obtain more information on the pending lawsuit but the PR company declined. We had planned to write a story on the lawsuit but needed more details. Failing that, we decided to wait for an official letter from the company.
The Irrawaddy was one of few publications that extensively covered the five controversial projects. We were dedicated to this issue as we feel a shared responsibility to preserve our cultural, historical and spiritual heritage.
In this case, President Thein Sein deserves acknowledgement for making a rare decision in line with public sentiment, including the views of experts and Buddhist monks, to stop the construction proceeding.
Since early January, The Irrawaddy has published more than two dozen stories on the controversial projects online and in print publications. Many local publications covered the issue but coverage in the international press was somewhat rarer.
Many stories centered on Dagon City 1, as it was the project most visibly progressing, with the company opening a showroom and selling apartment spaces.
In fact, the more than 70 acre site on which all five projects were due to launch is land that belongs to the military. Thukha Yadana was awarded the 51.73-acre site for the Dagon City project in an open tender by the Ministry of Defence’s Quartermaster General’s Office in 2013.
Three other companies also won tenders to develop the site, Shwe Taung Development Company, Adventure Myanmar Tour & Incentives Company, and Marga Landmark.
It seemed our extensive coverage was not appreciated by the latter company.
Following the threat to sue, we had long discussions in our newsroom whenever we would report on the development projects. The company rarely responded to our subsequent enquiries, or was slow in doing so.
On May 9, Marga Landmark released a statement:
“The recent false rumors and wrong information about Dagon City One made on public channels by an individual in his own capacity have stirred up considerable doubts amongst the public and our customers on the good reputation of Marga Landmark and Dagon City One,” the statement read.
“The Board of Directors of Marga Landmark is prepared to take legal action against this individual who has repeatedly made very personal defaming comments with inaccurate information and prejudiced views on Dagon City One…”
There was nothing factually wrong with our stories. We were simply reporting on an issue with significant cultural, historical and spiritual implications and upholding our responsibilities as journalists.
For a time, there was little public outcry on the issue, although a group of experts, architects and conservations sent an open letter to the president requesting that he reconsider the high-rise projects.
In mid-May, a groups of experts under the name, the Association of Myanmar Architects, held the “Save Shwedagon” forum and released a statement warning that the pagoda was in urgent need of protection and that its durability would be at risk if the developments nearby were not properly managed.
The experts unanimously urged the government to exercise caution in granting permission for developments in the historically significant area around the pagoda.
Hlaing Maw Oo, an architect and director from the Ministry of Construction, said during the forum that high-rise buildings near the pagoda risked “visual pollution.”
“From an urban design point of view, it’s unacceptable. The more visual pollution we have, the faster we will lose the view of the great pagoda for the next generation,” she said.
We couldn’t agree more.
On July 8, the morning after the government canceled the five planned projects, state-run newspaper the Global New Light of Myanmar reported: “The government also does not want to damage the religious edifices and cultural heritages including the Shwedagon Pagoda for development and held negotiations with the companies to cancel the projects.”
The government’s actions in this case are welcome. But in future, it should avoid similar mistakes by committing to prior due diligence, consultation and negotiation and aspiring to find the right balance between conservation and development.