The Myanmar Times
The Myanmar Times

Fit for an empire

Water spills into the building as though it were an old, sinking boat. Moss, mildew and vegetation have covered the roofs. Stray dogs, rats and pigeons have long since settled in the vast red-brick complex. Fans and electric wires hang from the ceilings, as if the occupants left in a hurry.

The Secretariat’s neoclassical facade, now showing neglect, was intended to show Britain’s mighty rule; at right, a double-spiral iron staircase welcomes visitors in the main entrance hall. Photos: Amaury LorinThe Secretariat’s neoclassical facade, now showing neglect, was intended to show Britain’s mighty rule; at right, a double-spiral iron staircase welcomes visitors in the main entrance hall. Photos: Amaury Lorin

Visitors to Yangon can’t miss the massive crumbling facade and imposing Neo-Renaissance towers of the Secretariat – known as the Ministers’ Office after independence in 1948 – looming in the heart of the city.

Owned by the Union government, which moved to Nay Pyi Taw in 2005, the Secretariat is today empty and abandoned. A source of both mystery and pride for nearby residents, the palace is protected at 300 Theinbyu Road by a simple barbed-wire fence. Yet the site is strictly forbidden to the public, though that looks set to change in the months and years ahead. A well-connected friend offered me an unexpected last-minute opportunity to get inside the building while the monsoons were at their height in July.

The 400,000-square-foot (37,161-square-metre) building was built in different phases. The first began on the southern section in 1889, three years after Burma became part of the British Raj following the third and last Anglo-Burmese war in 1885. However, the U-shaped construction – on a 16-acre compound bounded by Anawrahta Road to the north, Theinbyu Road to the east, Mahabandoola Road to the south and Bo Aung Kyaw Street to the west – was not finished until 1905, four years after Edward VII became King of the United Kingdom, Emperor of India and King of the British Dominions.

The administrative centre of British Burma until 1948, the Secretariat was overbuilt so as to be forever durable. Today the grand colonial architecture appears heavy and brutal. But for Britain, then known as the empire on which the sun would never set, its Burma headquarters had to be a physical symbol of its power and influence over Burmese people and culture. The building’s size far exceeded the needs of the administration.