Myanmar's preservation man pursues dream museum
Tycoon plans private museum for his vast collection of treasures
PETER JANSSEN, Contributing writer
YANGON -- Khin Shwe does not like to be called a "crony" -- the label used to describe the wealthy Myanmar businessmen who enjoyed close relations with the previous military regime of Senior Gen. Than Shwe (1992-2011). "Now, all the Myanmar people think cronies are no good, and even the government doesn't want to work with them," said Khin Shwe, 67, chairman of the Zaykabar construction conglomerate. "So now we have changed, from 'cronies' to 'tycoons.'"
Although he was part of this cohort, Khin Shwe had no problem working with the past two elected governments. He was a member of parliament under the five-year rule of President Thein Sein, representing the military-led Union Solidarity and Development Party, and now claims to enjoy a close relationship with Aung San Suu Kyi, the country's de facto leader since her National League for Democracy party won the 2015 polls. "Before the last election I said in public that I wanted Aung San Suu Kyi to win. After that I was fired from the USDP party. I was happy to go," Khin Shwe said, flashing a hearty smile.
He was particularly happy to say goodbye to Naypyitaw, the nation's notoriously dull capital, where he spent five years as a parliamentarian. "I became an MP for the USDP for five years. I had to spend five years in parliament 'jail,'" he recalled. In 2005, when former military strongman Than Shwe shifted the capital from Yangon to Naypyitaw, he asked the cronies to invest in hotels in the new city. Khin Shwe, whose business interests include land development and hotels, was one of the few who refused. "I don't like Naypyitaw. That area was not a suitable location for a capital."
But Khin Shwe's stint in parliament was not a total waste of time. Among his legislative achievements was pushing through a law in 2015 that allowed for the establishment of private museums, which had been one of his personal ambitions. Besides amassing money, land and properties over the past two decades, Khin Shwe has also been collecting things -- old things; about 400,000 of them.
He began collecting paintings by well-known Myanmar artists two decades ago and slowly broadened his collection to include just about anything ancient, including Buddha statues, monks' thrones, preaching stands and coffins, Karen bronze drums, cultural knick-knacks and about 170,000 fossils (some estimated to be 40 million years old) gathered by locals in the Pondaung district of central Myanmar.
"Some are fakes," acknowledged an employee of Myanmar's Department of Archaeology and National Museums, which is helping Khin Shwe classify and register his massive collection before it can go on display at the Zaykabar Museum, which is yet to be built. The tycoon says he will be taking tender bids for the construction of the $10 million Zaykabar Museum in March, 2018, with the aim of having the two-story, 200-sq.-feet building ready for business before 2020. Khin Shwe claims his interest in antiquity is a form of Myanmar nationalism.
"Now the Myanmar economy is very bad and many people, when they inherit antiques from their grandparents, they have to sell to foreigners because Myanmar people cannot afford to buy," Khin Shwe said. "So I wanted to collect the antiques myself to keep them in Myanmar."
While Myanmar has a rich cultural heritage, it remains one of Asia's poorest and least developed economies. During the decades of military rule (1962-2011), the nation lost many of its antiquities to foreign dealers, many of whom smuggled the treasures out of the country to avoid tough restrictions on private trade. Under military rule, it was illegal to buy jade, precious stones and antiques in Myanmar unless purchased from government-run stores. The efforts to control all trade in precious items spawned a booming illicit trade that has stocked antique stores in neighboring Bangkok for decades and supplied dealers and collectors further abroad. Trade in authentic antiquities and religious items is still prohibited under Myanmar law, so Khin Shwe cannot sell his hoard abroad even if he wanted to.
Besides buying up the remaining antiques in Myanmar, Khin Shwe has also purchased some Myanmar treasures found overseas. In 2014, for example, he paid 60,500 pounds ($80,000) for a 1,000-year-old wooden Buddha stature from a private collector in the U.K.
"U Khin Shwe's museum is symptomatic of the positive side of the opening up of the economy, because people are now increasingly interested in cultural heritage," said Elizabeth Moore, in-region liaison for the Southeast Asian Art Academic Programme of the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, and academic adviser to the Zaykabar Museum. "His is the only private museum. The ministry of culture does not have the resources," she said.
The Zaykabar Museum, which has already gained its license to operate, will also offer a legal means of displaying national treasures to the public which might otherwise face questions over ownership. For instance, the private collection of fossils gathered in central Myanmar by former prime minister and military intelligence chief General Khin Nyunt will be on display at the museum, and is currently being stored at the Royal Mingalardon Golf and Country Club, part of the Mingalardon Garden City complex in northern Yangon -- Khin Shwe's 5,000-acre housing development that has earned him his fortune. The Zaykabar Museum will be located on a 6-acre site near the golf course.
In a basement at the golf course are some 170,000 fossils and artifacts collected by Khin Nyunt. Before his fall from grace and imprisonment in 2004, Khin Nyunt and the late geologist Tin Thein were the main drivers behind the excavation of the Pondaung Formation, an area in the northwestern part of central Myanmar that yielded some 300,000 fossils of mammals from the late Eocene era (59-33 million years ago), including the remains of primates that may have been primitive anthropoids. Half the collection was given to the government, but the other half was kept by Khin Nyunt, whose legal claim to the national treasures was dubious.
"It was illegal before, but now the Zaykabar Museum has gained permission to operate, so there is no problem," said Khin Nyo, curator of the museum. "Now we have the legal permission so there is no problem with the issue of ownership; the archaeological department has also come here and is helping with the registration process."
Among the fossils are the remains of 10 different pre-modern elephant species, and ancestors of modern rhinoceros, hippopotamus, crocodiles, turtles and whales, as central Myanmar was under the sea during periods of the Eocene era.
Many items in the Khin Nyunt fossil collection were bought from private collectors, according to Nu Mra Zan, a former deputy director general at the Department of Archaeology and National Museums, under the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture. Nu Mra Zan, who renovated the National Museum in Yangon and set up the National Museum in Naypyitaw, is now acting as a consultant to the Zaykabar Museum.
"Khin Shwe told me he was saving the artifacts from leaving their own land, so I agreed with his concept because the government cannot afford to buy all these items with its own budget," Nu Mra Zan said. "He is one of our heroes." But she is less complimentary about his private collection. "He can build a beautiful building and make very expensive displays but I can say his collection cannot compare to the National Museum collections because the source of many of the items is unknown, they have no history. There is little research, no background, so the value of the collection is less than those at the National Museums."
For Khin Shwe their value may lie elsewhere. "One day I will die," he said. "After that I want the Zaykabar Museum to remain, for a long life."