Historic Yangon cityscape thrown a lifeline

By Thomas Kean
Volume 31, No. 619
March 19 - 25, 2012

Workers erect bamboo scaffolding around the Department of Immigration and National Population building on Mahabandoola Street near city hall early last year. The site was once home to the Rowe & Co department store, which opened its doors more than a century ago.
Pic: The Myanmar Times

SUPPORTERS of a campaign to preserve the hundreds of priceless colonial-era buildings that make up Yangon’s unique cityscape have been given until the middle of the year to come up with a viable private sector-led conservation plan.

This window of opportunity – approved by President U Thein Sein – was negotiated by historian Dr Thant Myint-U during “extremely encouraging” discussions with Minister for Industry U Soe Thein, the chief minister of Yangon Region and Yangon Mayor earlier this year.

To spearhead the effort, Dr Thant Myint-U, the grandson of U Thant and author of The River of Lost Footsteps, has established a non-government organisation, the Yangon Heritage Trust, with support from architects, members of the business community and non-government organisations. The trust plans to begin surveying the downtown area later this month and to assist in preparing a conservation strategy to present to the government a conference bringing together both local and foreign experts is planned for late April or May.

In the meantime, a moratorium has reportedly been put in place in downtown Yangon on the demolition of buildings aged over 50 years, although The Myanmar Times could not confirm this.

Dr Thant Myint-U told The Myanmar Times last week that the challenge would be to maintain Yangon’s distinctive character and merge it with the infrastructure and amenities of a modern city.

“The important thing is that any future strategy is based on as much consultation as possible with the people actually living in these neighbourhoods, as well as government, business, and others,” he said. “We need to marry a new set of government regulations that are in the public interest, with a business plan, with a conservation strategy.”

The growing interest in Myanmar from foreign companies and tourists provides both an opportunity and a threat for conservation, he said.

“We have a major opportunity. Yangon is on the verge of rapid development but at the same time still has a lot of its architectural heritage intact.

“There’s every possibility that Yangon can become one of the most beautiful and most liveable cities in Asia. I strongly believe preserving its architectural heritage will be a big part of making that happen … but we have to use this small window that we have. In a year or so it will be too late.”

The strategy could recommend the creation of heritage zones, with the lower end of Pansodan Street, crowded with the former offices of some of the world’s top banks, an obvious location.

However, Dr Thant Myint-U said the campaign was not so much about preserving individual structures of historical or architectural significance, such as the State Secretariat, as maintaining the city’s overall character and neighbourhoods.

“While keeping those 20 or 30 [major] buildings intact is a good thing, if we lose all the environment around them, we would have lost a great deal. We need to come up with a vision of what downtown Yangon should be, that will allow the thousands of families that have lived and worked there for generations to still live and work there. And we need to preserve its very special cosmopolitan heritage,” he said.

“What we need to realise is that Yangon has a unique cityscape. It’s a priceless asset. My great fear is that we will mindlessly destroy this asset in just a few years time, and only then regret what we’ve lost, forever.”

Further privatisation of state assets is likely to play a major role in any conservation strategy, as many of the buildings are state owned and underused as a result of the shift to Nay Pyi Taw. The plan would mostly likely require little or no public funding, and the few buildings that remain operational and in state hands, such as Yangon General Hospital and the Post Office, could receive international support for restoration, Dr Thant Myint-U said.

“Privatising most of them is fine, but its has to be done in a way that regulated, to make sure that the buildings are then properly renovated and kept up,” he said. “The role of government will be to set the right regulations – to grade the buildings and to determine the ways in which they should be protected. Some might be fully protected. For others, there could be a system of incentives for owners to [maintain] them.

“A different category entirely are the older residential buildings, which are being torn down it seems by the week. Here there will need to a be a hard look at what could or should be protected and what incentives or help could be given to current owners and keep them from being demolished.”

Importantly, the government appears to be behind the proposal. U Soe Thein told the Financial Times recently he believed it was important to “make Yangon a more modern city, but we also need to embrace its heritage, including its old buildings”.

“We want to avoid the mistakes other Asian cities have made,” he said. “We hope this will be good for tourism and also good for the people of Yangon.”

Mr Madhab Mathema, a senior advisor on UN-Habitat’s urban program, said cultural preservation was one of “four or five” major issues the government would have to consider as part of a broader urbanisation strategy for Yangon.

“Preservation of historic monuments is very important because maybe in 20 or 30 years Yangon will be on par with any major city in Asia. What are the incentives for the international private sector to come in and stay in Yangon? Every city provides almost the same type of services these days. What makes you different is your culture, your artefacts, monuments and so on. In that sense, it’s important for Yangon to take care of its heritage,” he told The Myanmar Times recently.

One focus of an urbanisation strategy that would encourage preservation of historical sites would be to relieve pressure on the downtown area by encouraging growth and economic development in outlying areas.

“But encouraging growth outside the [downtown area] really only works if there are good transport networks. Improving the circle train line is … relatively easy to do as a starting point. And I think that would encourage a lot of investment along the railway route,” said Mr Michael Slingsby, an urban development and poverty specialist at UN-Habitat.

Dr Thant Myint-U said a conservation strategy “wouldn’t make much sense” unless it fitted into a broader urban planning process. “We can’t, for example, make recommendations on pedestrianising parts of downtown Yangon unless it’s part of a more general plan for traffic and transportation in the city.”