Sermsuk Hutinta, better known as “Sam,” opened the Thai-owned Process Myanmar J/O architectural service firm in Yangon in the year 2000, long before Myanmar’s real estate boom was even imaginable.
Back at the turn of the century the only Asian property market sleepier than that of Myanmar was Laos. “At first we planned to have a branch in Laos,” Sermsuk said of his parent company, the Bangkok-based Process Architects & Planner Co. Ltd. “But after I spent six months there (in Vientiane) it was quite disappointing, so I came back to Bangkok.”
There his career was rescued by another Thailand neighbour, Myanmar. “One of the biggest companies in Myanmar wanted to use a foreign architect from Thailand, so my senior introduced me to the group,” Sermsuk said.
That group was the Shwe Taung Development Company, previously the Olympic Construction Group, run by well-connected Myanmar businessmen U Aik Htun and U Aung Zaw Naing. The company was awarded the Excellent Performer Tax Payer Award as the country’s top tax payer in 2014, by President Thein Sein. The Shwe Taung Group’s business portfolio includes real estate, shopping malls, construction, engineering, cement, hotels and trading (it got out of the banking business in 2003 when its affiliated Asia Wealth Bank had its license revoked amid accusations by the US of involvement in money laundering.) The Group, which now boasts some 6,000 employees, also keeps some Thais busy. “At first we worked on a project by project basis, flying in an out of Bangkok, but when we saw the customer was sincere, and Myanmar had good potential we decided to set up a Yangon branch in 2000,” Sermsuk, CEO and President of Process Myanmar J/O said.
Myanmar and Thailand have had their military and political differences in the past, but there seems to be enough cultural similarities to make a Thai architectural firm a good fit in the country.
“We understand Myanmar behaviour,” Sermsuk said. “Our beliefs are similar, and also our climate is similar so we understand their environment. This is a great advantage. Also we are neighbours so the connections for traveling are safer and faster,” he said.
This is not to say that Lanna or Ayuthaya or Thai colonial architectural styles are all the rage in Yangon. They aren’t. Quite the contrary. “When I first came here Myanmar was a very closed country,” Sermsuk recalled. “They had nothing. No Internet. No communications. Not much civilization but lots of nature. I could offer my clients nature-based, environmentally-friendly designs but forget it. They want only modern style. They want civilization.”
That’s probably bad news for groups like the Yangon Heritage Trust that are trying hard to preserve some of Yangon’s colonial-era architectural treasures. Yangon authorities have identified a list of about 200 government or trustee-owned heritage buildings for preservation, but there are hundreds others in private hands that are being torn down daily to make way for “civilization.”
“They don’t care too much about preservation because they see a lot of old buildings every day, but after a while, when they have matured, they will come back to these things – nature and heritage,” he said. Hopefully, by that time there will still be some of the old Yangon left to still preserve.
One of the trends working against heritage preservationists in Yangon has been soaring real estate prices, especially after the general election of November 2010 and subsequent political reforms put in place by President Thein Sein in 2011 such as bringing opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi into the political fold. “Five years ago one talang wa (4 square metres) cost $100, but now it’s $100,000 in some places,” Sermsuk said.
The Thai architect has witnessed other changes since 2010.
“Before the elections I had a monopoly on architectural services in Yangon,” Sermsuk said. “But after the elections the market took off and I got more competition.” The competition is chiefly coming from Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Vietnam, and they are coming to Myanmar as part of a “package deal.” “They have the investor, they have their own funding and they bring in their own team of architects,” Sermsuk said. One such project, the massive Vietnam-funded $440 million Hoang Anh Gia Lai Myanmar Center, is under construction near the Sedona Hotel, and will eventually include a 27 storey commercial centre, two office towers and a 23-storey hotel. According to Sermsuk’s sources, the office towers will be renting space at $80 per square metre per month, higher than the $70 per square metre per month asked at the Sakura Tower on Sule Pagoda Road, the only international standard office building currently available. These prices rival New York City’s. They also reflect the exorbitant cost of land and doing business in Myanmar.
Unfortunately for Process Myanmar, there have been very few Thai developers investing in Myanmar to date, perhaps because of the high costs. “For the Thai developer after they come and look around, they will say, Myanmar is very expensive, no good deals and poor infrastructure,” Sermsuk said.
“But developers from Singapore, Korea and Japan, they are quite familiar with an expensive market.” And luckily for Process Myanmar, most of his big clients are Myanmar companies. “My customers already have the land,” he said.
Most of his customers also have the connections, another important aspect of doing business in Myanmar. Process Myanmar J/O has designed numerous projects for the well-connected Shwe Taung Groups, including the Junction Square shopping mall in Yangon and the Junction Nay Pyi Taw in the capital. Another important client is the City Mart Group, the biggest retailer in Myanmar. The Thai architect also designed The Diamond Inya Palace, a condominium owned by the Mandalay Golden Wings Construction Company, one of the biggest. The Diamond Inya Palace is Yangon’s tallest building to date, at a not so impressive 34 storeys. “Thirty-four storeys is not so high, but in Yangon, no building can be higher than the Shwe Dagon Pagoda,” Sermsuk said, referring to the city’s iconic chedi.
Sermsuk leaves the government connections up to his Myanmar clients. “The connection is between the developer and the government. That is my customer’s duty, not mine. I just design. All the big companies must keep this connection. Otherwise they cannot get the big project.” That’s not too different than Thai business culture either.
This Article first appeared in the June 4, 2015 edition of Mizzima Weekly.
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