Big names trade barbs over equestrian venue

Some prominent businesspeople are pitted against each other in a dispute between the Myanmar Equestrian Federation and the Yangon Equestrian and Country Club.

By KYAW YE LYNN | FRONTIER
Photos STEVE TICKNER

THERE WAS alarm as the horses thundered towards the finish line and a group of eager spectators, men, women and children, strayed onto the track.

“Stay off the track! It’s dangerous,” warned an official through a megaphone.

“The riders are highly skilled, the horses are first class and they are galloping at up to 45 miles an hour,” he said.

Steve Tickner | Frontier

Steve Tickner | Frontier

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The race was the last of a series of competitions that marked the 46th anniversary of the Yangon Equestrian and Country Club at the North Dagon Racecourse on February 16.

Hundreds of horse lovers, including many from Yangon and Mandalay, attended the anniversary, which also included jumping events and riding competitions for children.

Steve Tickner | Frontier

Steve Tickner | Frontier

The event was an occasion for celebration but the venue is the source of a bitter dispute between the YECC and the Myanmar Equestrian Federation, both of which count prominent businesspeople as their core members.

YECC chairman U Aung Maw Thein alluded to the dispute in his opening address at the event, which he said was aimed at raising the standard of equestrian sports in Myanmar.

“It is discouraging for equestrian sports in Myanmar when some people act maliciously rather than giving support,” said Aung Maw Thein, who is managing director of Myanmar Distribution Group.

“I believe equestrian sports will develop only if we hold such events often,” he said.

Steve Tickner | Frontier

Steve Tickner | Frontier

His comments came after the MEF told the Sports and Physical Education Department of the Ministry of Health and Sports in a letter dated January 28 that it objected to the YECC holding the event at the North Dagon Racecourse.

The department had sought comment from the MEF after the YECC requested permission for the February 16 event.

In its letter to the department, the federation said it opposed the request because the YECC “is not a registered member of the Myanmar Equestrian Federation or under the Myanmar Olympic Committee.”

“Moreover YECC hasn’t handed over the North Dagon horse-course to the MEF yet despite several requests from the MEF,” it said.

Steve Tickner | Frontier

Steve Tickner | Frontier

MEF vice-chairman (1) U Kyin Oo said that the racecourse had ostensibly been under government management since 1996, when a number of sporting clubs and federations were moved from Kyaikkasan sports ground in Tarmwe Township.

The former military junta had designated about 300 acres in North Dagon for a national sports complex and 58 acres had been earmarked for use by the MEF, Kyin Oo, who is the owner of Popular Plastic Group, told Frontier.

“However, the YECC has managed it from the start. That’s irregular,” he said.

YECC patron U Nyein Kyaw said the racecourse was given to the club by former military intelligence chief Lieutenant-General Khin Nyunt, who was ranked third in the junta before he was purged in 2004.

Steve Tickner | Frontier

Steve Tickner | Frontier

Nyein Kyaw, a founder and senior partner with the law firm Rajah & Tann NK Legal, said he was one of eight people who formed the Yangon Turf Club, as the YECC was originally known, in 1973.

“Our club did not have a track at first, then someone who had a good relationship with General Ne Win approached him and we were permitted to use the track at the Kyaikkasan sports ground from 1987,” he told Frontier at the equestrian competition on February 16.

“Club members became core members of the MEF when the government established different sports federations in 1990s,” Nyein Kyaw recalled. However, the early overlap in membership between the club and the federation did not last, with the two groups now representing a hard division within the equestrian community.

“Without our club, there would have been no equestrian federation at that time,” he said.

Steve Tickner | Frontier

Steve Tickner | Frontier

Another YECC patron is U Khin Shwe, chairman of the Zaykabar Group of Companies, who confirmed to Frontier that YECC members had leading positions in the MEF when it was established.

However, he said that although Khin Nyunt had personally granted the YECC the right to use the North Dagon track, it was clear that the land was owned by the Ministry of Health and Sports, meaning that the federation had legitimate rights to it.

An official at the ministry said the dispute over using the North Dagon track began a decade ago because of differences between leading members of the YECC and the MEF.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that a solution proposed by the ministry, for the MEF to use a riding venue established in Nay Pyi Taw for the 2013 Southeast Asian Games and for the YECC to remain at the North Dagon venue in Yangon, was rejected by the MEF.

“The MEF and YECC are the two strongest groups in equestrian sport in Myanmar and the ministry would like to see them working together,” the official said.

Steve Tickner | Frontier

Steve Tickner | Frontier

Sports and Physical Education Department director U Maung Maung Soe said the Ministry of Construction had transferred ownership of the track at North Dagon to the then Ministry of Sports in 2014.

“It is clear that the [health and sports] ministry has the right to manage it, and the ministry has authorised the MEF to use it,” Maung Maung Soe told Frontier. “All sports clubs have to follow the rules of their respective federations.”

Maung Maung Soe claimed that the MEF had not requested the ministry to intervene and he understood that the two groups were trying to resolve the dispute between themselves.

Kyin Oo said that the MEF was willing to negotiate with the YECC and it would welcome working with the club to advance equestrian sports.

He said “the door is open” to the YECC because the MEF on its own would not be able to raise the standards of equestrian sports.

Steve Tickner | Frontier

Steve Tickner | Frontier

Khin Shwe agreed that the two sides needed to work together but said the YECC should ideally have its own racecourse.

However, he added, “Although the MEF has the right to request that the racecourse be transfered from the YECC, I think it should not do so. It already has an international standard racecourse in Nay Pyi Taw.”

“And the truth is, the club is more efficient than the federation,” he said.

TOP PHOTO: Steve Tickner | Frontier

By Kyaw Ye Lynn

By Kyaw Ye Lynn

Kyaw Ye Lynn is a Myanmar journalist based in Yangon. Prior to joining Frontier, he worked as a freelance journalist and fixer. He began his career at the Popular News weekly journal in 2011.
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