The Tourist Burma building: A (freehold) plot in dispute

Yangon Chief Minister U Phyo Min Thein’s plan to refurbish a grand heritage building overlooking the Sule Pagoda faces a major hurdle: a businessman says his family owns the freehold site and wants it back.

By THOMAS KEAN | FRONTIER

IN APRIL, a friend sent Yangon businessman U Bilal Ayub Munnee a link to a video through WhatsApp. The clip from 7Day TV – an offshoot of the 7Day News media empire – showed Yangon Region Chief Minister U Phyo Min Thein outlining plans to renovate two heritage buildings: the Secretariat and the former Tourist Burma building on Sule Pagoda Road.

“We’re preserving 200 heritage buildings in Yangon and the Yangon government is directly supervising the renovation of the Tourist Burma building and Secretariat. We’re trying to restore them to their original condition,” the chief minister said.

After a tough first year in office, during which the re-launch of the Yangon Bus Service and suspension of high-rise construction backfired spectacularly on him, Phyo Min Thein was delivering a feel-good plan to restore important elements of the country’s history to their former glory.

But for Bilal, the restoration plan came as both a shock and a disappointment.

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He insists his family has owned the Tourist Burma building since 1918 – and still does to this day.

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Inside the Tourist Burma building. (Steve Tickner | Frontier)

He also says he has the documents to prove it. Copies of these papers, more than an inch thick, sat on Bilal’s desk as he spoke to Frontier recently. During the conversation, he sent his assistant out regularly to find and copy more documents: demarcation maps, engineer’s blueprints, a deed of sale, rental agreements – even his grandfather’s British India passport, issued in 1927.

“I’m very depressed,” he said, “because we have a very big hope for our democratic government and we think this government has a lot of opportunities to give justice to the people oppressed in the past.

“But I think maybe [Phyo Min Thein] is not actually aware of the … situation regarding our building. His intention is good because this building is a heritage building.”

Phyo Min Thein has had many opportunities to apprise himself of the claim to the site, though. Bilal has sent four letters to the chief minister’s office over the past year “reminding him this building was our own with some proof”, none of which were acknowledged.

“Not only some documents – we have a lot of proof,” he says, waving the pile of papers animatedly. “We can give proof to anybody – I want to meet with U Phyo Min Thein and give him the proof to show him this was not a nationalised building.”

‘One of the richest men in Burma’

Bilal’s great-grandfather, Mohamed Ebrahim Munnee, migrated to colonial Burma sometime in the 19th century from Gujarat in India. In Rangoon he established a hardware business that among other things, supplied railway girders to the colonial government.

The family became major property owners in colonial Rangoon. Bilal says that by the time the family bought the three-storey building at 79-91 Sule Pagoda Road in 1918, his great-grandfather was said to be one of the richest men in Burma, behind only the likes of Lim Chin Tsong, a Sino-Burmese tycoon who built the Chin Tsong Palace in Golden Valley.

In the 1930s the Sule Pagoda Road building was famous as the home of the Myanma Aswe (Burmese Favourite) department store, run by a wealthy local businessman, U Ba Nyunt.

But in 1947, Bilal’s family was forced to lease the building to the National Housing Board under the Requisitioning (Emergency Provisions) Act, albeit at something close to market rates.

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Inside the Tourist Burma building. (Steve Tickner | Frontier)

The building avoided General Ne Win’s mass-nationalisation of 1964, Bilal said, because it was built on freehold land.

Although the constitution states the state is the “ultimate owner” of all land – most land is leased from the government as “grants” – some freehold land remains from the colonial era. These freehold plots are still recognised and can only be acquired by the state under provisions of the 1894 Land Acquisition Act.

The site had also been transferred to a family waqf, or trust, four decades earlier, in 1924. Under Islamic rules, assets must remain in a waqf in perpetuity, meaning they cannot be sold or transferred.

“We got a lot of offers at that time – both before and after the nationalisation – to sell the building, but we always refused,” Bilal said.

A quiet campaign

The rental arrangement with the government continued for six decades, literally unchanged. In the first three months of 1962, according to a receipt provided by Bilal, the National Housing Board paid the waqf a rent of K5,794 and 35 pya – a considerable sum for the time. For the 2007-08 financial year, a receipt for which was also provided, the trust was to be paid exactly the same amount, although by that time it was the equivalent of less than US$20 a year.

This was when Bilal, who had become trustee of the waqf in 1990, refused to accept any more rent. The building, which had been the headquarters of Tourist Burma for decades, was now mostly empty as a result of the shift to Nay Pyi Taw. He began to lobby the Department of Human Settlement and Housing Development, which had replaced the Housing Board, to turn it over to the family.

His efforts accelerated in 2012 when the Myanmar Investment Commission put the building up for tender, with the aim of finding a private partner to turn it into a hotel. Bilal filed an objection and MIC formed a special commission, led by then Deputy Minister for Rail Transportation Thura U Thaung Lwin, to investigate his claim. After assessing the ownership documents, the tender was cancelled.

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U Bilal’s family retains many documents related to the Sule Pagoda Road building and the life of his great-grandfather, Mohamed Ebrahim Munnee. (Steve Tickner | Frontier)

Bilal said the commission told him that a separate investigation team would be formed to decide whether to return the building to his possession. He was heartened by the DHUD’s decision around the same time to turn over some rooms in the Balthazar building, on Bank Street, to the family.

Like the Tourist Burma site, the government had rented the Balthazar building – erected in 1905 by Armenian merchants – from Bilal’s family for many decades. When DHUD officials returned the rooms, Bilal said they also promised to remove the remaining squatters and give him control over the entire site.

Bilal said he saw a commitment to “justice” among some in the U Thein Sein government and had hoped that these commitments would be fulfilled. But the election was approaching and the government seemed to lose interest in his case, he said.

At this point, he approached National League for Democracy legal adviser U Ko Ni for help. Bilal said the lawyer, who was tragically assassinated at Yangon International Airport in January, studied his documents for a month before agreeing to accept the case. Ko Ni then filed a notice under section 80 of the Code of Civil Procedure giving the government two months to respond to his client’s application for the building to be returned.

Instead of responding to the notice directly, the DHSHD approached Bilal with a new offer for the Sule Pagoda site. Would he be interested in continuing the rental agreement at “market rates”? When he asked what rate they had in mind, he was told K400,000 a month – just US$400 at the time. Unsurprisingly, he turned it down.

A new era?

In November 2015, the NLD sealed a massive election win and took office the following March, with Phyo Min Thein chosen to lead the Yangon Region government.

As chief minister, he signalled immediately that he would be more sympathetic to advocates of heritage protection and sustainable development, after the somewhat laissez-faire approach of his predecessor, U Myint Swe. High-rise construction was halted and a zoning plan dusted off.

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U Bilal’s family retains many documents related to the Sule Pagoda Road building and the life of his great-grandfather, Mohamed Ebrahim Munnee. (Steve Tickner | Frontier)

In October 2016, Frontier reported on a proposal from NGO Turquoise Mountain to restore the former Tourist Burma building on Sule Pagoda Road. The restoration plan – developed at the suggestion of Phyo Min Thein, according to Turquoise Mountain – would see much of the building become accessible to the public. There would be an affordable food hall and handicrafts workshop on the ground floor and a rooftop garden, while rent from offices and a high-end restaurant would help to recover some of the costs.

Turquoise Mountain’s Myanmar director, Mr Harry Wardill, said at the time that it could become an important example of how Yangon’s historic buildings could be repurposed in a way that was both financially viable and inviting to the community.

Frontier soon received a letter from Ko Ni’s office, on behalf of Bilal. The information in the article was “quite wrong”, it said – the building had not been nationalised.

Since then, both the Department of Housing and Urban Development – the re-badged DHSHD – and the Yangon Region government have repeatedly failed to respond to requests for comment on the matter, including questions submitted directly to Phyo Min Thein’s office through a cabinet member. Frontier has been told that the chief minister is not responding to any questions from the media at the moment. Information requests submitted under the News Media Law, which require a response within 14 days, were ignored

Bilal’s experience has been similar, he said. His last contact with DHUD was when he rejected their rental offer. “We contacted the Housing Board so many times, so many letters, but they never responded,” he said. He blames the department for failing to communicate the details of the rental agreement to Phyo Min Thein. “The Housing Board knows everything but they didn’t inform anyone.”

Still moving forward?

Wardill of Turquoise Mountain said in a recent interview that although there had been some changes to the plan that Frontier reported on last year the fundamental vision remained the same. That is, Turquoise Mountain wants to partner with the government to restore the Sule Pagoda Road building to international standards, while securing public access, improving public areas around the building, and training craftspeople and professionals in traditional building skills.

Ownership of the building was an issue for the government, Wardill said, adding that he had not discussed the issue with Bilal. “The Yangon Region government has told us that the building is under their control,” he said, adding: “We would be restoring the building on behalf of the regional government so the validity of any claim on the site would be assessed by them.”

Bilal’s case, though, has in recent weeks been taken up by some regional lawmakers, including Daw Kyi Pyar (NLD, Kyauktada-1). She said she believed Bilal’s claim should be carefully scrutinised, but declined to comment further.

Bilal has also discussed the issue with U Thant Myint-U, the chairman of the Yangon Heritage Trust. He told Frontier that “on the surface of it at least, [Bilal] seems to have a good claim to these buildings”.

YHT had proposed to the government that several downtown buildings be grouped together as part of a public-private-partnership scheme and renovated for a mix of public and commercial uses. The scheme would aim to spur the revitalization of the downtown economy as well as protect heritage assets, Thant Myint-U said. 

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U Bilal’s family is also seeking the return of the Balthazar building, on Bank Street, which it purchased at auction in 1918. (Steve Tickner | Frontier)

The Balthazar and Tourist Burma buildings could be included but their ownership status would first need to be clarified, he said, adding that he planned to discuss this idea further with the chief minister.

“We came to the conclusion that a lot of privately owned buildings would be difficult to work with because of the messiness of ownership and the competing claims. We thought focusing on state-owned buildings might be a good first step but it turns out that even some of the apparently state-owned buildings have private ownership claims,” Thant Myint-U said. “If the government says that [Bilal owns them], then our interest would simply be that they are properly renovated and maintained and ideally used in a way that would most benefit the local communities.”

Bilal is effusive in his praise for those helping bring his case to the attention of the regional government. Like Turquoise Mountain, YHT and the regional government, he has a vision for the Tourist Burma building. He’s conscious of the importance of preservation but would also likely rent out most, if not all, of the building, rather than open it up to public use.

This, he said, was his family’s “right” – and his duty as waqf trustee. “Our family always supported the government; we never demanded the market price [in rent]. But now it is a free economic policy and everybody has the right to utilise their own property.

“We can preserve [the building] as the pride of Myanmar,” Bilal added, “and we offer to cooperate with anyone who can help us to renovate according to heritage guidelines.”

For Bilal, his case is a test of whether justice prevails under an NLD government. But, as the saying goes, possession is nine-tenths of the law. Should Phyo Min Thein and the government refuse to cooperate, the family’s seven-decade wait to regain what they say is rightfully theirs is unlikely to end any time soon.

TOP PHOTO: U Bilal Ayub Munnee stands in front of the Tourist Burma building. (Steve Tickner | Frontier)

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