Making a sober Myanmar landmark a party venue


The Secretariat building is more than just an important historical structure in Myanmar, it's a powerful political landmark. Next week, a host of American companies, including Krispy Kreme, will set up temporarily on its grounds.

The Secretariat, a building in Myanmar’s former capital where independence hero Aung San was assassinated in 1947, is a powerful touchstone for the country’s history and identity.

Next week, the Secretariat’s grounds are scheduled to host a night bazaar promoting ties between Myanmar and the United States, with Krispy Kreme doughnuts and other American food, and live music from the local Hard Rock Cafe’s house band.

But critics say choosing the complex for such an event was insensitive.

Do the organizers “want to see businesspeople washing the blood of our hero with alcohol?” one critic, Tin Mg Htut, asked in a Facebook post. “Such a shame that this historic place is turning into a bar.”

Kyaw Zay Ya, a member of Parliament from Yangon, the former capital and Myanmar’s biggest city, said he understood that the bazaar was a business venture. “But we can’t replace that money if we lose the cultural and historic value of the place,” he said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has been named as a sponsor of the event, but the U.S. Embassy in Yangon said in an email that the U.S. government had played no role in planning or funding it. The embassy said the USDA office in Yangon had merely agreed to “facilitate connections between the event planner and restaurants and importers that serve and sell American foods.”

“We recognize the Secretariat’s significance in Myanmar’s history,” Aryani Manring, a spokeswoman at the embassy, said in an email. “It is of course for the people of Myanmar to determine how they wish to see the Secretariat used.”

The embassy referred further questions to the event’s organizer, Signature Night Market, and the company said the two-day event would go ahead as planned Feb. 11 and 12.

Signature Night Market said that the event, known as Nightfest, would be held outdoors in the Secretariat’s compound, not inside the building, and that security personnel would not allow guests to become “unruly” as a result of drinking too much alcohol.

Ngu K Khaing, chief operations officer for Anawmar Art Group, which has been renovating the Secretariat into an art museum, declined to comment on the criticism of the bazaar. She said the event’s purpose was to attract tourists, exchange culture and food, and enjoy the Secretariat at night.

The Secretariat, whose main building was completed in 1892, was the seat of government during the country’s British-colonial period and for decades after the country, then known as Burma, gained independence in 1948.

It survived a World War II bombing of the city and has been unoccupied since 2005, when Myanmar’s military government moved the capital from Yangon, formerly Rangoon, to Naypyidaw.

For many people in Myanmar, the Secretariat will forever be associated with the July 19, 1947, assassination of Gen. Aung San, who had been elected leader of an interim government responsible for drafting the country’s constitution. He was shot in the Secretariat’s Cabinet Room along with eight other people.

secretariat myanmar
Aung San was assassinated inside the Secretariat Building in 1947.

Aung San’s daughter Aung San Suu Kyi is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Myanmar’s current state counsellor, the country’s de facto leader.

Myanmar still commemorates the assassination with a holiday known as Martyrs’ Day. The Secretariat has been opened to the public on Martyrs’ Day every year since 2014, but has otherwise remained largely closed.

In 2015, criticism swirled on social media after the daughter of Lt. Gen. Tun Kyi, a onetime junta member, hosted a party in the Secretariat’s courtyard. The Irrawaddy, a news site, reported at the time that the owners of Anawmar Art Group were related to Gen. Tun Kyi by marriage.

Critics of the upcoming Nightfest include Moe Moe Lwin, director and vice chairwoman of the Yangon Heritage Trust, one of the groups that has been racing to save Myanmar’s colonial-era landmarks from the ravages of time and a tropical climate.

The Secretariat “is regarded as being associated with nationwide mourning, commemorating independence struggles and remembering selfless efforts of our national leaders,” Moe Moe Lwin said in an email Tuesday. “For the general public it could be acceptable to use for art and cultural plus some business-related activities, but not for fun-related events, such as concerts.”

She added that the entire site had heritage value, including its middle courtyard, where annual memorial ceremonies are held.

On Tuesday, two U.S. brands with outlets in Myanmar defended their participation in Nightfest.

“This is just an American-Myanmar cultural exchange, and we are participating because we want to promote our brand,” said Khaing Nyein Mo, a spokeswoman for The Hard Rock Cafe Yangon. “I don’t think the event will be unruly, as people are suggesting on social media, because it’s not a free event.”

Eye Cheint Cheint Chu, marketing manager for Krispy Kreme Myanmar, said she was aware of the criticism.

“As our Krispy Kreme is an American franchise brand, we will participate in Nightfest at the Secretariat because the event’s purpose is to exchange U.S. and Myanmar culture,” she said.

Watch Dateline;s award-winning documentary, Myanmar's Killing Fields via SBS On Demand.

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