Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other top officials have come under fire for being allotted real estate plots in the capital at prices under a state program, contradicting their reformist pledges to shun perks of power in a country impoverished by decades of misrule.
As former opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi said her National League for Democracy (NLD) would not accept preferential treatment as government officials, while most ordinary citizens struggled with poverty — part of a platform that won the party general elections in 2015 by a landslide.
During an interview with RFA’s Myanmar Service in 2014, Aung San Suu Kyi said NLD leaders would not accept state-sponsored perks, including land plots upon retirement.
“My party will not accept such provisions,” she said at the time.
“Besides, we don’t want such rewards at a time when most of our people are struggling to secure their farmlands,” she added. “Our party members are so used to uphill struggles.”
With politics heating up in the run-up to the next election in November, social media accounts told of the 75-year-old leader and top officials being granted plots as large as eight acres (3.2 hectares) in the capital Naypyidaw.
The chatter prompted President’s Office spokesman Zaw Htay to clarify on June 20 that State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint, and other officials were allowed to buy small parcels of land at a "designated price" in the capital region, following a retirement practice in Naypyidaw.
"It is true that the land plots are being granted for the government members," he told reporters.
"Naypyidaw Municipal Council has created the new land plots in Ottarathiri Township to allot to Union Ministers and high profile persons at a designated price. The municipal council is creating more new land plots to provide for other ministers and deputy ministers. This is a tradition that the State has provided the land plots to government officers when they retired," added the spokesman.
Social media exaggerations of the size of the plots “must be a disinformation campaign as the 2020 election approaches,” Zaw Htay added.
Aung San Suu Kyi and Win Myint were each permitted to buy plots of 400 square feet, while government ministers could purchase 300 square feet, and deputy ministers could acquire 250 square feet, Zaw Htay said.
Zaw Htay did not specify the designated prices and it was not clear if all eligible officials were taking part in the program.
RFA was unable to reach the Naypyidaw Development Committee, which creates and prices the retiree plots, to confirm the sizes and cost of the land parcels set aside for government officials.
There have been no accusations of wrongdoing by the NLD leaders, but critics said the election year optics were poor, given their reformist pledges and the fact that Myanmar ranks last in nominal per capita GDP of the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Older Myanmar voters remember how General Than Shwe, head of the military junta that ruled Myanmar from 1992-2011, built a sprawling estate in Naypyidaw and shocked his country with a lavish 2006 wedding party for his daughter in Yangon that featured her sipping champagne while dressed in layers of pearls and diamonds.
“People voted for the NLD party hoping that it would eliminate such unfair practices,” Nyo Nyo Thin, a former independent lawmaker from Yangon region, told RFA.
“If they are legalizing the system of privileged provisions, then the NLD won’t have a good political future,” she said.
“This system has been entrenched in successive governments, and we want the NLD to uproot it, not to carry it on,” added Nyo Nyo Thin, founder of the regional government watchdog group Yangon Watch.
Ye Htut, information minister from 2014-2016 during former president Thein Sein’s Cabinet, said the inconsistency between words and deeds hurts the reputations of NLD leaders.
“I think it is pretty awful that these [leaders] have broken the pledges they made in the past,” he said. “Receiving land plots from the state is not a problem, but Daw [honorific] Aung San Suu Kyi is breaking her own promise. Because she is a politician, it is damaging to her dignity.”
A member of the opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), Ye Htut noted that the NLD came into office on a promise of solidarity with the people, yet officials have not hesitated to snap up the land at below-market prices.
“Given the fact that the government still cannot resolve issues like the farmland shortage and widespread squatting in the cities, such rewards are very inappropriate,” he added.
Tin Thit, an NLD lawmaker who represents a constituency in Naypyidaw, defended the actions of his party, saying that it is providing lifelong security for both high-level and low-level government officials in all major cities.
“These rewards are not limited to top government officials,” he said. “There are also land allotment programs, affordable housing, low-income housing, and rental housing programs for low-level staffers.”
“The government is just implementing its policies,” he added.
Reported by Kyaw Lwin Oo for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.