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The last Armenians of Myanmar

By Andrew Whitehead BBC World Service, Yangon

One of the oldest churches in Myanmar, also known as Burma, is struggling to keep going - its congregation only occasionally reaches double figures. But the opening up of the country to outside investment and tourism is offering new hope.

Reverend John Felix, priest at the Armenian church in Yangon, also known as Rangoon, can't speak Armenian - but then neither can his congregation. Not that there is much of a congregation these days - just seven, myself included, on a recent Sunday morning.

The 150-year-old church enjoys an imposing location, at a street corner in downtown Yangon. It's a beautiful building, a patch of calm in a bustling city. The Armenian Orthodox church of St John the Baptist - standing, suitably, on Merchant Street - is almost all that's left of what was one of the city's main trading communities.

"To judge from church records, there were once a few hundred Armenian families in Burma but the last 'full' Armenian died last year. Across the country, there are no more than 10 or 20 families who are part Armenian - and just a handful still come to the church," says Felix.

Rachel Minus, in her mid-30s, can sing in Armenian - and does with reverence - but can't speak the language. She attends on Sundays with her father, who also tolls the church bells.

"My grandfather was full Armenian and our family name is derived from the Armenian surname of Minossian. We're part Armenian and this church and its services mean a lot to us," she says.

On that Sunday, just one other worshipper was of Armenian descent. Percy Everard has been coming to the church for decades. His wedding, the priest believes, was the last to be conducted at the church - but it's so distant no one is quite sure how long ago it took place.

In the early 17th Century, large numbers of Armenians fled the Ottoman Empire and settled in Isfahan in what's now Iran. From there, many travelled on in later years to form a commercial network which stretched from Amsterdam to Manila.

Their influence in the British Raj reached its peak in the late 19th Century, when census records suggest that about 1,300 Armenians were living principally in Calcutta, Dhaka and Rangoon.

Their closeness to the Burmese royal court gave them a particularly privileged status in Rangoon's trading community. The land on which the church stands is said to have been presented to the Armenians by Burma's king.

The region's most prestigious hotels - including The Strand a short walk from the church in downtown Yangon and the even more famous Raffles in Singapore - were established by Armenians.

But bit-by-bit over the past century many in these small Armenian outposts, worried by political and economic instability, have looked for a new home - with Australia the most favoured destination.

John Felix - whose bishop is based thousands of miles away in Sydney - is a welcoming and enthusiastic clergyman, proud of his church and unbowed by the difficulties of keeping going as the congregation steadily shrinks.

Felix took over as priest of the Yangon church from his father, who died three years ago after more than 30 years as minister. Like his father, he was initially ordained into the Anglican communion and then re-ordained as an Orthodox priest.

He was born in Myanmar, speaks Burmese - but is of south Indian origin, and so has his roots in another of the migrant communities which once made Yangon such a thriving commercial hub.

He worries about the upkeep of the building. "There are three spots in the roof where the water's coming in, and we need to get them fixed."

But this is by any standards a neat, well-kept church, and an important part of Yangon's rich colonial-era architectural heritage which is increasingly attracting tourists and international attention.

Sunday worship has all the hallmarks of an Orthodox church service - icons, incense and, in spite of the slender attendance, entrancing hymn singing. Felix doesn't wear the ornate priestly robes in which his father once conducted ceremonies, but he remains firmly part of the Orthodox tradition.

That Orthodox lineage could be key to the survival of the church - as a spiritual home to all the various forms of Orthodox Christianity as well as a last vestige of an almost-gone Armenian community.

Already diplomats, business visitors and tourists from a range of Orthodox countries and churches - Russian, Greek, Serbian - occasionally swell the numbers at St John the Baptist, the only Orthodox church in Myanmar's biggest city.

A new worshipper here, Ramona Tarta, is Romanian, a globetrotting business woman, publisher and events organiser who has lived in Yangon for the last few months.

"My faith is very important to me. Wherever I am in the world, I seek out an Orthodox church. But I was about to give up on Yangon. I thought it was the only city I'd ever lived in which had no Orthodox place of worship," she complains.

She chanced across the Armenian church when driving past, and believes that with a little promotion, this historic building - and the tradition to which it bears testimony - could have a more secure future.

If the church reached out more actively to all strands of Orthodoxy then, she argues, it could attract more worshippers and find a renewed purpose. She's set up a Facebook page for the church as a first step towards getting more attention.

Myanmar has had more than its share of troubles and upheaval over the last century. The country was occupied by the Japanese during World War Two, and suffered greater privation and damage to its infrastructure than almost anywhere else in the region.

Many Armenians were among those who embarked on the arduous wartime trek north through jungle and forest to the relative safety of British India - a memorial in the church lists the 13 members of one Armenian family who died during the journey.

Burma gained independence from Britain in 1948, several months after India and Pakistan. Within a few years, it had a military-backed government which made little effort to develop commercial links beyond the country's borders. The army's violent suppression in 1988 of the democracy movement further heightened the country's international isolation.

Over the past few years, Myanmar has been edging towards greater democracy, and has started to open its doors more widely to foreign business and investment. What was one of Asia's most international cities is again starting to develop a more global aspect.

And a church which has its roots in an earlier era of international commerce may find fresh succour from a new bout of globalisation.


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Myanmar Establishes Diplomatic Ties With Armenia

Myanmar Establishes Diplomatic Ties With Armenia Published on February 7, 2013 by SAReporter ·

Yangon, Feb 8 (IANS) Myanmar has established diplomatic ties with Armenia, official media reported Friday.

Armenia is the first country that Myanmar forged links in the new year of 2013 after Malawi, Bhutan, Luxembourg, Latvia, Estonia and Iceland in 2012, reported Xinhua.

A joint communique was signed between Myanmar's permanent representative to the UN and counterpart of Armenia in New York Jan 31.

The diplomatic establishment with Armenia has brought the total number of countries in the world with which Myanmar has such links to 111 since it regained independence in 1948.

According to the foreign ministry, Myanmar has so far set up embassies in 30 countries and two permanent missions in New York and Geneva, and four consulates-general in Hong Kong, Kunming and Nanning, and India's Kolkata, respectively.

Meanwhile, 28 countries have their embassies in Myanmar. In addition, China and India have respectively set up consulates-general in Myanmar's Mandalay, the second largest city, while Switzerland in Yangon and Bangladesh in Sittway.

IANS 2013-02-08 13:24:01

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By Jim Andrews

The Irrawaddy News Magazine, Thailand Jan 18 2006

Government involvement helps restore shine to Rangoon's Strand Hotel

Rangoon is a picture book of architectural gems from the years of British colonialism. But visitors have a frustrating time discovering them.

The city streets so carefully planned and built in the mid-19th century have been allowed by neglectful Burmese post-colonial governments to fade and crumble. Layers of soot and grime accumulated over the years make it difficult to detect exquisite art nouveau and solid Victorian and Edwardian features of buildings that, in their time, would not have looked out of place in bourgeois areas of London.

But the difficulties of taking an architectural tour of Rangoon don't stop there. Visitors with a camera in the hand are liable to be chased away from any of the many historic buildings now in government hands. A reporter for The Irrawaddy who ventured beyond the high fence surrounding Rangoon's general hospital-a splendid Victorian pile-was aggressively turned away by the foreman of a team of workers restoring the faded facade. Another foreign visitor attracted suspicious attention when trying to photograph Rangoon's splendid railway station.

One colonial-era building, however, stands in all its pristine glory and opens its doors readily to visitors-the Strand Hotel. Ironically, money from the cash-strapped Burmese government helped restore the historic old hotel, which for many years had kept company with other neglected, rat-infested buildings along the Rangoon River waterfront.

The Strand Hotel was built at the turn of the 19th century by two Armenian brothers, Aviet and Tigran Sarkie, who had already opened Raffles Hotel in Singapore and the Eastern and Oriental in Penang as part of an ambitious plan to run a chain of high-class hostelries to cater for the increasing numbers of traders and travelers in the Far East.

It opened its doors in 1901, the year of the death of Burma's imperial ruler, Queen Victoria, and the ascension to the British throne of her son, Edward VII. The hotel was a success from the start but, like others throughout Asia, felt the effects of the inevitable fall in overseas travel that followed the outbreak of World War I in 1914.

In 1925, the Sarkies sold the Strand to two other Armenians, Rangoon restaurateur Peter Bugalar Aratoon and his cousin Ae Amovsie. The roaring twenties swept from America and Europe to the colonial outposts of Asia, enfolding Rangoon's white society in an endless round of partying. And the Strand Hotel was the place to party, offering weekly dinner dances, regular theater evenings and Sunday tiffin. Whites only, of course.

Somerset Maugham visited Rangoon at this time and enjoyed "an agreeable life, luncheon at this club or that, drives along trim, wide roads, bridge at this club or that, gin pahits...then back through the night to dress for dinner and out again to dine with this hospitable host or the other, cocktails, a substantial meal, dancing to a gramophone or a game of billiards..."

The Strand was certainly on his route. His fellow writer Noel Coward stayed there for a time, and undoubtedly drew inspiration for such ditties as "Mad dogs and Englishmen." One of its refrains runs: "The toughest Burmese bandit can never understand it. In Rangoon the heat of noon is just what the native shun, they put their Scotch and rye down and lie down...but mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun."

The hotel changed hands again in 1941-ownership this time was claimed by the Japanese conquerors of British-ruled Burma. At first the hotel was used to billet Japanese troops, and their horses were stabled in the bar where once the cream of Rangoon society sipped their pre-prandial cocktails. In September 1942, the Japanese occupiers handed the hotel over to the management of the Imperial Hotel, Tokyo, and the Strand was back in business.

Further changes came with the end of the war in Asia in late 1945, and then with Burma's independence in 1948. With the end of colonialism in Burma the clientele of the Strand took on a new look-for the first time in its history, Burmese citizens were welcomed over its hallowed threshold.

"Burmese guests became a regular sight at the Strand Hotel, moving to the rhythms of the foxtrot, the waltz and the samba," wrote Andreas Augustin in his history of the hotel. "Ballroom dancing was again a popular pastime, but now elegant young and elderly Burmese couples glided over the polished parquet of the Strand Hall, enjoying Christmas celebrations and New Year balls, toasting their new country and that their Burmese dreams might come true."

With the coming of Ne Win and his form of socialism in 1962, the Strand was bought by the Burma Economic Development Corporation. Its long-time part-owner Peter Aratoon became general manager and steered the hotel through the difficult years of socialism, retiring in 1971 and settling in England. He was succeeded by the Strand's first Burmese general manager, Than Ngwe.

Under government control, the fortunes of the Strand declined rapidly. Its vast bedrooms gathered dust, bathroom fittings grew rusty, paint began to peel, the once renowned cuisine took on a depressing monotony and mediocrity. One travel writer wrote that the Strand had "become a rat infested fire trap."

Austria's Trade Commissioner in Bangkok, Hubert Schwetz, summed up the state of the rooms when he recalled sinking into a sofa in the Strand Suite: "I disappeared into a cloud of dust. My wife lost sight of me for two minutes."

All that changed with the arrival of a new regime in Burma in 1988.

Ne Win's socialist policies were thrown overboard and replaced by a reform program ostensibly favoring a market economy. One of the prizes put up for sale was the Strand Hotel.

The "for sale" sign attracted bidders from all over the world, but a Burmese businessman, Bernard Pe Win, manager of American Express in Rangoon, beat them to it. He won financial backing from Asian hotelier Adrian Zecha, and in 1989 the two sealed a contract between the regime, represented by Myanmar Hotels and Tourism Services, and a group of foreign investors named as Strand Hotel International.

It turned out to be one of the happier enterprises involving Burma's unpredictable regime. Today, the Strand Hotel is again a glittering architectural jewel in Rangoon's shabby cityscape. And nobody chases you away if you want to take a picture.

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