Yangon’s modernisers wrestle with old and new

On the verge of huge transformation, Burma’s former capital has a rich architectural legacy

Few places resonate more in the history of modern Burma than the sprawling red brick Victorian complex at No 300 Theinbyu Road in downtown Yangon.

It was here that the British colonial administration was headquartered, here that the ceremony marking Burma's independence was held, and here that its parliament sat until the military junta took over in 1962. Known as the Secretariat, the collection of buildings is most famous for one of the country's darkest episodes – the assassination in 1947 of Gen Aung San, independence leader and father of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

But despite its historical significance, the Secretariat, like so many other colonial edifices in Burma’s former capital, stands crumbling and neglected in a fast-changing city whose skyline is punctuated by new office blocks. Built in the late 19th century, the 16-acre site contains a hodge-podge of architectural styles behind a razorwire perimeter that keeps out any curious members of the public.

Visiting the Secretariat is a rare treat. Inside, ghostly corridors lead to cavernous rooms with collapsed ceilings and boarded up windows. A spectacularly ornate staircase just inside what was once the main entrance evokes the grandeur of a bygone era when bustling, cosmopolitan Yangon – then known as Rangoon — was considered a jewel of the British empire and one of the world’s great trading outposts.

Buddhist shrine

Up another stairway in the mildewed western wing is the room where gunmen shot Aung San dead as he held a meeting with colleagues. The space is now a curious mix of prayer area – a Buddhist shrine takes up much of the room – and half-hearted memorial. The only nod to what transpired here six decades ago is a monochrome portrait of a uniformed Aung San placed on top of a blue-painted cupboard, alongside a small vase of flowers. Our guide, a middle-aged Burmese man, stands for a moment in silent homage to the national hero.

The Secretariat and other colonial-era administrative buildings fell into even greater disrepair after 2005, when the military dictatorship then ruling the country moved the capital to Naypyidaw, a sterile purpose-built city around 320 km north of Yangon. Where once they suffered from the junta’s indifference – though ironically all but non-existent development at the time ensured their survival – these examples of the city’s rich architectural legacy now face a more existential threat.

As Burma’s largest urban centre and its commercial heart, Yangon, is a buzzing hub for foreign investors drawn by the opportunities offered by the country’s political and economic opening up. Demand for office space, luxury condominiums and hotels has driven up property prices and caused a construction boom. Conservationists fear the city’s historical buildings may be at risk.

"Yangon is on the verge of a massive transformation," says renowned historian Thant Myint U, a leading figure in efforts to preserve the city's heritage and return many structures to their former glory. He has founded the Yangon Heritage Trust, a group which lobbies for a proper urban plan. "The city may grow by several million people over the coming decade or so. It can either become one of the most beautiful and liveable cities in Asia, a top tourist destination, and an engine for Burma's economy, or descend into a sprawling urban disaster area. The decisions being made over the coming months will shape the city for the rest of the century."

Old and new

Thant says more than 1,000 buildings dating back to the colonial era have been demolished in Yangon over the past 10-15 years. “It still retains a downtown with a unique collection of late 19th and early 20th century architecture, but we’re at a tipping point,” he explains. “What we want is a city that mixes old and new in the right way, combing efforts to improve housing and public transport with an appreciation of our special heritage. The big problem is commercial greed mixed with an incredibly weak legal and administrative infrastructure. No one knows who really owns what.”

The question of balancing development with preservation of Burma’s unique history extends beyond Yangon. Authorities are keen to boost tourism as part of efforts to grow the country’s impoverished economy after decades of international sanctions and suffocating state control.

When a nominally civilian government took power in 2011, Aung San Suu Kyi and other former dissidents who once called for a complete boycott started to encourage responsible tourism. Officials say two million visited last year. Many predict that figure will rise to seven million by 2020. Such projections have prompted a flurry of plans to build roads, hotels and air links but conservationists fear there is little thought given to sustainable development that will protect what draws tourists to Burma in the first place.

The Secretariat, at least, seems safe. After proposals to turn the storied complex into a hotel were ditched following a public outcry, moves are now afoot to restore the patchwork of derelict buildings and turn it into a museum and cultural centre. It will be interesting to see how Aung San might be commemorated in such a project. Many believe the generals that still wield considerable power are not keen to see his legacy celebrated because it may further bolster the standing of Suu Kyi, whose presidential ambitions have so far been thwarted by a clause in the military-drafted constitution.

As Yangon redraws its cityscape after more than 50 years of isolation, there are many in the city who fear it could change beyond recognition, scarred by ruthless modernisation. “We should not lose what makes us special,” says one local artist. “We don’t want to become another Bangkok.”

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