Myanmar: the battle to save the built heritage of old Yangon

Without proper planning, the city could follow the path of many of its Asian neighbours in losing its architectural character

Yangon is at a turning point. Since the beginning of economic reforms in 2011, dozens of new hotels, office and apartment towers have been built. Many more are being planned, together with mammoth infrastructure projects meant to support a population that, according to McKinsey’s 2013 Myanmar report, could climb to 10m by 2030. The number of cars on the streets has tripled, bringing traffic in places to a near halt.

Without proper planning, Yangon could easily follow the path of many of its Asian neighbours in losing its character and architectural heritage and becoming a congested, polluted, urban sprawl. Or it could transform itself into one of the most beautiful and liveable cities in the region. The decisions taken over the coming year or two will shape Myanmar’s largest city for the rest of the century.

I am not an architect or an urban planner. I was born in New York to Myanmar parents and for much of my career I worked for the UN, either at headquarters or on peacekeeping operations in the field. I have also been a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, and have written books on Myanmar and Asian history.

I have visited Yangon almost every year since I was a child and remember the city in the 1970s and 1980s as a lush, lazy, backwater, trapped in General Ne Win’s “Burmese Way to Socialism”, a place of overgrown gardens and hidden gems, like its 19th-century Armenian church and the tomb of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last emperor of India. And later, as an historian, I began to understand what a special place it was, a palimpsest with its ancient gilded pagodas and Glaswegian corporate offices, the site of so many epic events, from the 1825 battles between the East India Company and the king of Burma’s elephant-mounted musketeers to the pro-democracy uprising of 1988.

I moved to Yangon four years ago and at first concentrated on the issues more familiar to me, issues related to international aid and the new round of peace talks between the government and country’s myriad insurgencies. However, I couldn’t help but notice the alarming rate at which the city’s elegant 19th and early 20th-century buildings were being knocked down and replaced by some of the shoddiest looking constructions I have ever seen. As I learnt later, several hundred pre-1960 buildings had been demolished over recent years, but hundreds more remained. In the new more open political environment, I thought I would make a push to see if the demolitions could be stopped and a process of renovation begun.

In January 2012 I had my first meeting with government ministers. Three months later, together with a few like-minded architects, businessmen and engineers from Myanmar, I founded the Yangon Heritage Trust, the first organisation dedicated to the conservation of the city’s built heritage. We held our first international conference in June that year, and in February 2013 I met with U Thein Sein, president of Myanmar.

Everyone seemed encouraging. “Your dream will come true,” said one official. “Good you intervened when you did — we were thinking of knocking down the whole lot of them,” suggested another. The government asked for plans and quietly put in place new policies that have, if not halted, then at least slowed down the demolitions. For a while, it seemed that saving Yangon’s architectural legacy would be easy.

My original motivation had been an aesthetic one centred on the colonial-era buildings downtown, but my colleagues and I quickly realised that the trust’s focus had to be far broader. Yangon’s greatest treasure was, after all, the sublime 344ft-tall Shwedagon pagoda on a hill overlooking the city, the most important religious landmark in the country. There was certainly no threat of its demolition, but views of the shrine were in danger of being blocked by a swath of new developments. There were also Yangon’s other religious sites. Downtown Yangon alone is home not only to three other ancient pagodas but also to Anglican and Roman Catholic cathedrals, dozens of other churches and mosques, Hindu, Chinese and Sikh temples and even a Jewish synagogue.

At the trust we began to think not just about the individual buildings but entire streetscapes and neighbourhood communities. At the government’s request we began to install “blue plaques” at historic sites. We organised tours and exhibitions to raise public awareness and fostered a good working relationship with the city administration. There has been considerable international interest as well.

In March last year I was invited to Clarence House in London to discuss the trust’s ideas with the Prince of Wales. And last November I escorted Barack Obama, the US president, around the historic Secretariat complex and discussed Yangon’s future.

The trust worked towards a more coherent vision, one where a mix of conservation areas would be combined with areas for medium and possibly high-rise development. The waterfront would be remade, allowing for public access, with existing industrial sites moved to a new deep-sea port 15 miles away. Beyond this “historic core”, there would be ample room for less regulated construction. A new mass transit system would complement this vision. We advocated a 21st-century city where the best of the old would be combined with the new.

The day-to-day challenges, though, are daunting. With the move of the capital to Naypyidaw in 2006, the government left behind an enormous portfolio of colonial-era property, some now virtually empty. The reuse of these buildings could be a catalyst for urban renewal, and with market rental prices now sky-high (more than $5 a sq ft per month for office space) the long-term leasing of some of these buildings could pay for the renovation of the rest. But there is no clear government strategy to do this and coordinating the myriad ministries and agencies responsible will be a Herculean task.

Then there are the privately owned buildings, where ownership is unclear and often contested. In many apartment buildings, like the one I live in (which was home to Pablo Neruda in the 1920s), the “landowner” has few if any rights to the apartments themselves, pays no property tax and has no obligation towards maintenance. For these landowners, any hope of financial gain rests in the building’s demolition. Some pay bribes to local authorities to block repair permits or to have the building declared “dangerous”. A beautiful 19th-century building would then be replaced by a cheap 12-storey one.

Very little progress will be possible without addressing underlying legal issues and changing this market dynamic.

There are reasons to be disheartened. A zoning plan, which the government drew up with our help two years ago, has not moved forward, most likely because of lobbying from developers. In an effort to increase parking space for new car users, the once wide pavements downtown have been torn up, destroying street life and making the city far less walkable. And decisions on a new mass transit system could go ahead before an overall plan is in place. We may well be in a lull before a new tide of demolitions and developments that will take decades to undo.

Yet there are reasons to be hopeful, too. The government has made several difficult decisions in our favour, including blocking a proposed 38-storey tower in the heart of the old downtown. More recently, the lease of the state-owned Secretariat to a private company was made contingent on a “conservation management plan”. We are providing technical assistance for a number of renovation projects, for example at the century-old General Hospital, and are beginning projects of our own. Public opinion is increasingly on side.

What is important now is to bring the government, business sector and local communities together around a concrete action plan, drawing on international best practices, but grounded in Yangon realities. If we seize this opportunity, I am confident we will be on track to create a 21st-century city unrivalled in Southeast Asia.

Source: Financial Times

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