The race is on in Yangon

Art August 20, 2013 00:00


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Preservationists jockey with deep-pocketed property developers in bid to save their city's historic buildings

SU SU TIN, 79, has lived most of her life in the house her father built in 1938 in Lanmadaw, a once posh residential district of Yangon.

She wants to preserve the family homestead by renting it out as a bank branch or restaurant, but her children object.

“I love this house because it is so beautiful and it is my father’s legacy, but I must abandon it because my children want me to sell the land for a new high-rise building,” says Su Su Tin sadly.

A Myanmar developer has promised each of Su Su Tin’s four children flats on the ground or first floors of the planned high rise as part of the sales agreement.

Such deals are made daily now in Yangon, whittling away what has been dubbed “the largest repository of colonial-era buildings in Asia”.

After two years of political reforms and diplomatic breakthroughs under an elected government, Yangon is emerging from five decades of socialist, sanctions-inflicted slumber. But with the awakening have come concerns about preserving its unique architectural legacy.

“At a time when people think everything in Myanmar needs to change, people are not appreciating that in Yangon we actually have a very beautiful city that needs to be conserved,” says Thant Myint U, a Myanmar historian and a founder of the Yangon Heritage Trust.

The British established Yangon as their capital in 1852, turning it into one of the most cosmopolitan cities in Southeast Asia.

The city skyline has stayed pretty much unchanged since independence in 1948. During the Burmese Way to Socialism under Ne Win’s rule between 1962 to 1988, buildings fell into disrepair and paint peeled.

When the former junta moved the capital to Nay Pyi Taw in November 2005, many government buildings in Yangon were abandoned. Some were sold off.

The massive Secretariat building, the former administrative headquarters of the colony, was sold to an undisclosed Myanmar buyer after it was deserted in 2005.

As the place where independence hero Aung San was assassinated in 1947, many have called for it to be turned into a museum.

The old headquarters of the Burmah Oil Company, which later became British Petroleum, also lies derelict.

City authorities have identified a list of 189 government or trustee-owned heritage buildings for preservation, but there are thousands more in private hands that are less likely to survive.

The Yangon Heritage Trust was set up last year with political backing of Myanmar President Thein Sein to help preserve the identity of the old capital.

“Yangon never had zoning or building regulations, but the city has been relatively well preserved because there were no major investments over the past decades, especially during the time of socialism,” says Moe Moe Lwin, director of the Yangon Heritage Trust.

The trust has drafted an “urban heritage conservation law”, designating heritage zones in Yangon that would make it more difficult to tear down old buildings in the heart of the city.

“We are optimistic it will pass, because it would help the regional government manage the city’s growth,” Moe Moe Lwin says.

Traffic is already becoming a problem in the city. Over the past two years, the number of vehicles on Yangon’s streets has increased 20 per cent to about 300,000.

Yangon’s old central business district remains the heart of the metropolis, and the most attractive area for real-estate development.

“The trouble is a lot of investors prefer this area and they want to build high-rises here, but if we allow them in, that will create even more traffic and congestion,” says Kyaw Lat, adviser to the Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC).

The committee’s solution has been to propose a second central business district in Mangaladon township, northern Yangon.

One problem is that most of the land there is owned by the defence and agriculture ministries, and they have their own plans for it.

“We are going to start with some land administered by YCDC,” says Toe Aung, a spokesman at the city planning department. “It will be a small area, about 20 acres, but maybe the other ministries will follow our lead.”

Meanwhile, the YCDC is hoping the zoning law will be passed soon to help it protect the old central business district around Sule Pagoda from developers.

Several of the colonial relics are being tendered out to the private sector on the understanding that the exterior structures will be preserved, while the interiors are transformed into hotels or modern business offices.

While some of these publicly-owned colonial gems may be renovated into hotels, restaurants, bars and museums, there is less hope for the preservation of the privately owned ones.

“For private buildings, there is no effective mechanism to save them,” Kyaw Lat says. “So I think a lot of those buildings in private hands from the colonial times will be gone soon.”