Court deals blow against man who claims to own the Tourist Burma Building

A court dealt a blow on Friday to a man who claims to be the rightful owner of a historic building in downtown Yangon, rejecting his request to make the local government a defendant in the case.

Bilal Ayub Munnee, who says his great grandfather was the building’s original owner, wanted Yangon’s government to share responsibility with the company that renovated the Tourist Burma Building.

If the judge had ruled in his favour the local authority would have had to share the cost of 5bn kyat – roughly $3.4m – compensation in the event that Bilal won his case.

He is suing the Yangon Metropolitan Development Public Company (YMDP) after it went ahead with a 192m kyat renovation at the building against his wishes between 2017 and 2019.

As well as compensation, Bilal is seeking ownership rights. He claims the building still belongs to a trust his family established nearly a century ago.

In January, after the YMDP said in its defence that the renovations were ordered by the regional government, Bilal asked the court to name the regional government as a co-defendant. The regional government owns a majority share in YMDP.

But the court rejected the request on the grounds that Bilal’s legal team did not give notice to the government two months in advance, as prescribed by the Code of Civil Procedure.

No one from the regional government showed up to Friday’s hearing besides their lawyers.

Bilal’s team had argued that bringing the government into the case was necessary because YMDP claimed to be acting on government orders.

The renovation was part of Yangon chief minister Phyo Min Thein’s plan to transform city heritage sites into venues for public and commercial uses.

Bilal told Myanmar Now that his great grandfather, Mohamed Ebrahim Munnee – a colonial-era immigrant from India and a wealthy Yangon businessman – purchased the building in May 1918.

He has “piles of documents” that prove it and that show his family has owned it ever since, he added: “We have the sale contract from when it was bought in 1918 and all other supporting documents.”

In 1925 the property was transferred to a family waqf – a charitable trust, usually of property, that under Islamic law cannot be sold or transferred, he said.

Under the 1947 Requisitioning (Emergency Provisions) Act the trust was forced to lease the building to the National Housing Board. But the building itself was never nationalised, says Bilal, because it sits on freehold land, which under colonial-era law is exempt from most nationalisation schemes.

For most of the last 60 years, successive governments have used it for ministerial offices under the original lease – which began at market rate but, having never been adjusted, was just $20 per year by 2007.

Until that year the hotels and tourism ministry was headquartered there, just before the last military government moved the final batch of ministerial offices to Naypyidaw.

Bilal said the government paid rent to the waqf all those years, and that he has kept all the receipts.

His family only stopped collecting rent when the government stopped using the building in 2007, at which point he began petitioning several government departments to have it officially returned to the waqf, to no avail.

In 2012 the Myanmar Investment Commission put the building up for tender, hoping to find a private investor that could turn it into a hotel, but Bilal objected to the sale.

After investigating his claims to ownership, the MIC cancelled their tender, but the government has done little since to help return the property to the waqf, Bilal said.

Yangon MP Sandar Min criticised the government at a parliamentary meeting last month for “wasting” public money without determining whether the government owned the building in the first place.

In June 2017 the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which succeeded the National Housing Board, transferred its lease on the building to the regional government, and the regional government then asked YMDP to renovate it with public funds.

YMDP hired the NGO Turquoise Mountain to oversee the renovation.

Source: Myanmar Now

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