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Myanmar Consolidated Media

Tourism official spurs old buildings debate

By Htar Htar Khin
October 31 - November 6, 2011

The Secretariat building in Yangon could be converted into a hotel if a Myanmar Tourism Board official has his way.
Pic: Aung Tun Win

YANGON’S colonial-era buildings are a reminder of days gone by and aside from the 189 sites heritage-listed by Yangon City Development Committee, the blocks are quickly disappearing into the past.

Dr Khin Shwe, Chairman of Myanmar Tourism Board, initiated the debate last week when he suggested that the Secretariat – and eight other government buildings – could be converted to hotels or other businesses during an ASEAN-Japan Business Meeting, Weekly Eleven journal reported on October 19.

The Secretariat, which occupies a whole city block in downtown Yangon’s Kyauktada township between Thein Phyu and Bo Aung Kyaw roads, is more than 120 years old. It’s also the place where independence hero Bogyoke Aung San was assassinated on July 19, 1947.

However, a number of people within the construction and architecture industries are worried about the consequence of allowing private management of a building so entrenched in the country’s history.

One architect and member of the Technical Committee for Maintaining Historic Buildings, who did not want to be named, said he would prefer to see the Secretariat preserved as a public building.

“I would like to see the Secretariat preserved as a museum, which is the best way to ensure that its features and structures are maintained. That way we could use the building to show off our architectural past to foreign visitors,” he said.

“We must value the construction techniques and styles of the time because we can never properly recreate those today,” he said.

He added that the news concerning the possible conversion of the Secretariat into a hotel was spreading extremely fast in the industry. However, he worried that using the buildings as a hotel could have negative consequences.

“If those buildings were converted into a hotel, it could easily lead to damage because it was not designed to act as a hotel,” the architect warned.

Heritage buildings are valuable because they provide a small picture of what Yangon looked like at the time and the prosperity the nation enjoyed.

Daw Chaw Kalyar, the joint secretary of the Association of Myanmar Architects, also suggested that the Secretariat should be preserved as a museum.

“I strongly believe the Secretariat should become a museum because in that role it would not need significant alterations. It’s also in an excellent location for locals and tourists alike to visit,” she said.

She added that some of the other colonial-era buildings that have been converted into shopping malls or retail outlets are potentially dangerous because they require significant overhauls in order to incorporate modern safety requirements such as fire escapes.

Daw Chaw Kalyar said Myanmar should be proud to have so many colonial-era buildings still and should preserve the best ones for the future because they have the potential to attract tourists.

“The Strand Hotel is a landmark in Yangon and appeals to foreigners. I think Myanmar has a great opportunity to earn money from our colonial-era buildings from tourists but not necessarily by converting them to hotels,” she said.

A spokesperson for the Committee for Quality Control of High-Rise Building Projects (CQHP), who is also a member of the Technical Committee for Maintaining Historic Buildings, agreed that historically important buildings such as the Secretariat should be retained as they are.

“I don’t believe that all the old buildings should be kept but the Secretariat is an important building in our history,” he said.

He said Malaysia provided a good example of how colonial-era architecture – such as that at Malacca – can lure foreign tourists.

“Many of Malaysia’s old buildings have been converted to museums or other tourist attractions, which I think is something we should do as well,” he said.

A 39-year-old Mingalar Taung Nyunt township resident said he was not in favour of Dr Khin Shwe’s proposal to convert the Secretariat into a hotel.

“I think colonial-era buildings should remain in the government’s hands rather than handed over to the private sector because I don’t like how they develop their own sites, let alone ones that have historical importance,” he said.

The other eight buildings mentioned by Dr Khin Shwe in the Weekly Eleven report were the 30th Street clinic building in Pabedan township; the block that contains the City Mart building in Botahtaung township at the corner of 47th and Thein Phyu roads; the Popa and Duya hostels at Hlaing University Campus in Hlaing township; two other government buildings in Kyauktada township; the Trade Centre on Lower Pazundaung Road in Mingalar Taung Nyunt township and a 10-storey building in Dagon township.