Yangon Heritage Trust founder Dr Thant Myint-U discusses President U Thein Sein's response to the organisation's preservation plans with The Myanmar Times' editor, Thomas Kean.
You recently gave a presentation to the president on Yangon Heritage Trust’s vision for heritage conservation in Yangon. Can you tell me about the content of the presentation and how it was developed?
It was a PowerPoint presentation, in four parts, that my colleagues and I at YHT had been working on for weeks.
The first part set out what we think makes a great 21st century city: a city that is not only modern, but that works for all its people, that is livable, with parks and other green spaces, that has good public transport but is also walk-able, that is culturally diverse, and that protects its heritage, including its architectural heritage and what makes it unique.
The second part argued that Yangon has all the elements to become a truly great city and showed the amazing heritage we have, from the views of the Shwedagon to the architecture of downtown, to the wonderful open spaces that still exist. The third part explained why it is so important to act now, not only because so many buildings are being destroyed but because there is tremendous international interest, both investor and philanthropic interest, that we can draw on to move in the right direction.
The last part outlined what needs to happen next, including new zoning laws, a statutory list of protected buildings, and a special plan for downtown Yangon.
In 10 or 20 years, Yangon will be competing with cities around the region. Getting Yangon right – and making it the most livable and beautiful city in Asia – will be crucial in attracting and keeping intellectual and creative talent. It’s worth more than all the natural gas and minerals in the country, literally. This is what we said.
And what was the president’s reaction? Has your proposal been given the green light?
He was extremely positive. He understood right away what was at stake and the need to rethink existing plans. He asked for a detailed and phased action plan, which we are working on. He also asked us to reach out to the public and explain our ideas in the media.
Who else in the government or other official bodies, such as Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC), have you presented the plan to and how did they respond? What are their main concerns over implementation?
We have already been working closely with the [Yangon] Mayor and YCDC. We have been looking in particular at the boundaries and laws that will define the proposed conservation zones, the initial ones being around the Shwedagon Pagoda and downtown. The challenge though is not coming up with new laws or regulations, but monitoring and enforcing compliance and making sure that local communities – the ordinary people of Yangon – are the first and not the last to benefit from new schemes. We have also met with the ministers for construction, tourism, and transport and several times with the Yangon Region Chief Minister [U Myint Swe] and Minister for the President’s Office U Soe Thane.
What will be the first steps for implementation, and what is already underway?
We’re trying to move ahead on several fronts at once – from new laws and guidelines, to public outreach, to a new “blue plaque” system to mark historically important sites, to a reexamination of the governance of this issue, to the actual renovation projects and help for low-income families living in old buildings. Our urgent task right now though is providing the president with the phased action plan he has requested.