At the corner of Merchant and 37th streets, between layers of peeling white and yellow paint, the words Burma Translation Society are written across a building owned by the Ministry of Information.
U Soe Myint Than has worked for the ministry’s Printing and Publishing Enterprise for the past 25 years. The building has a distinguished history, he says.
“As far as I know, General Aung San wanted somewhere dedicated to Myanmar literature, so it was built in 1950 under Prime Minister U Nu.” It is in need of repair, he says, but any upkeep must first be approved by the government.
“Repairs are made with government money, but we are responsible for hiring carpenters or masons. We need to mend the roof, so I have presented the idea to our ministry and hopefully we will receive a permit and funds.”
The cost of restoring the building to its original condition would be too high, and involve hiring skilled labourers to avoid damaging the historical handiwork, he said.
“We only fix the inside of the building. As I have worked here for many years, I am attached to this place. I want to sustain it, as it is an important site in the history of Myanmar literature.”
U Maung Aung from the Ministry of Commerce said his office on Strand Road is conserved under a special government budget.
“Every ministry has a maintenance budget, which is not enough in most cases,” he said. “We mostly mend the inside of the building, trying not to damage the original structure.”
If restoration work stopped, the building would collapse, he said. “We patch up the bits most in need of repair. There is historical handiwork, but we don’t have the budget to hire skilled workers.”
Under a new Protection and Preservation of Ancient Buildings Law, this may change. The law was passed on August 26, and requires any state-owned building over 100 years old to be maintained by the regional government in collaboration with the Ministry of Culture.
Privately owned buildings should be preserved by the ministry and the building’s owner, according to the new law, which also extends to newer buildings designated as heritage sites by the culture ministry. The law does not just cover Yangon but extends to other cities with buildings of historical importance.
Anyone looking to make modifications to the country’s oldest buildings must first secure a permit from the Department of Archeology, National Museum and Library, under the Ministry of Culture, and the regional city development committee’s engineering department.
“Any renovations, big or small, must first be reported,” said an official from the Department of City Planning and Land Administration under Yangon City Development Committee. “We are now working out how best to collaborate with different ministries according to the new law,” he said.
This could pose problems for some. For U Than Oo, who lives in a colonial building at the corner of Pansodan and Anawrahta streets, upkeep is a matter of safety, not architectural preservation.
“I think our building is nearly 100 years old,” he said. “I’m not sure if it’s historical or not, but we are anxious that it might collapse.”
The apartments were allocated to military officers and government staff by the Union Revolutionary Council in 1962, he said. They have since been passed down through the generations, and each person is responsible for repairing his own apartment.
“For major repairs, we all contribute some money and hire a contractor. We don’t examine it afterward, so I don’t know if the historical handiwork is being destroyed. We repair the building to ensure we are safe.”
The YCDC official said that for now only a handful of the city’s heritage buildings are being properly maintained, by ministries using the buildings as offices, and private organisations.
YCDC is also helping where it can, he said. “Our departments are also trying to carry out repair work when their budget allows for it.”
The local authority’s headquarters is in Yangon City Hall, the first building to receive a blue plaque from non-government Yangon Heritage Trust (YHT), to signal its historical importance. “We are trying to prevent damage to our heritage buildings,” he said.
For the most important or unique buildings, such as the colonial-era Secretariat, decisions about maintenance and repair are made in collaboration with the regional government, he added.
In other countries, heritage buildings are renovated to attract income, “For instance, experts have suggested the Central Press building [on Thein Phyu Road] could be redeveloped to include bookshops and cafes,” he said. “On the other hand, it’s important to consider security, as the building is used by the ministry.”
The Ministry of Information, which owns the building, has approached Yangon Heritage Trust to help with the project. The Central Press, which is still operational, will become a “working and living museum”, David Gole, senior heritage architect at YHT, previously told The Myanmar Times.
YCDC has designated 189 buildings in Yangon as national heritage sites. Most are in the downtown area, and are used as private or public offices. From 1990, private developers knocked down many of the city’s architecturally important buildings to make way for mid-range condominiums and office towers.
Many buildings with historical value were also damaged in the process. As Yangon still lacks a heritage zoning plan, new high-rise and residential projects continue to threaten the remaining buildings and views of the city, according to YHT literature.
Translation by Thiri Min Htun and Kyawt Darly Lin