On the brink

SILKROADlogoOnce a formidable statement of colonial justice, the faded red former High Court building in downtown Yangon has seen better days. Greenery sprouts from the domed clock tower and weeds have taken root along the cream-coloured lintels. A guard waves interested tourists away. Ripe for preservation and conservation, the huge edifice is sadly dilapidated, like most of the city’s long neglected monuments of Empire.

From the decaying teak Pegu Club, once visited by that poet of the Raj, Rudyard Kipling, to the imposing Secretariat government buildings, Yangon has Asia’s most complete array of colonial-era architecture. Untended for decades, many are festooned with vegetation, stained with mould and mildew, and some are in a dangerously crumbling state. Now, though, there is a push for heritage conservation in the long neglected city.

The former railways headquarters in Yangon. Photo by Sian Powell

The former railways headquarters in Yangon. Photo by Sian Powell

The bustling entrepot formerly known as Rangoon – the capital of the British colony of Burma – was once the hub of a wealthy nation renowned as one of the world’s biggest rice exporters. A prime source of sought-after teak, Burma waxed fat on trade, and the nation’s monuments were built to last. But a military coup in 1962 left Burma, now renamed Myanmar, shunned by much of the world and at the mercy of crippling international sanctions. Multinational developers kept their distance for decades.

Finally, in 2010, the dire state of Myanmar’s increasingly moribund economy helped push the ruling military regime into staging a quasi-democratic election. In the months that followed, political prisoners were released and sanctions were lifted. Now real estate prices in Yangon have rocketed and developers are circling. A critical shortage of the modern office space considered important to maintain economic growth in the booming city provides a lot of room for big profits.

An architect with a private practice in Yangon, Si Thu Myint Swe says the generals of the former military regime, and even most of the current government’s officials and politicians, have yet to think seriously about Myanmar’s cultural heritage in terms of the city’s colonial architecture. Many citizens, he adds, still believe the nation’s rich culture is largely embodied in the ancient Buddhist temples of the northern city of Bagan, and in the renowned Shwedagon pagoda in Yangon, rather than in the edifices of Empire.

In the dark decades of military rule, Yangon’s residents had a natural antipathy towards the regime and its bureaucrats, so government buildings – some of the richest examples of the city’s colonial architecture – were not looked on with affection. “Now people are realising it’s also very important to preserve the colonial buildings as cultural heritage,” Si Thu Myint Swe says.

Some developers have embraced heritage conservation, at least to a certain extent. Yoma Strategic Holdings, for one, has plans for a ten-acre site in Yangon’s heart, with the historic railways headquarters building, dating from the 1800s, as a centrepiece. Plans include two office blocks, a retail mall, business-persons’ accommodation and serviced apartments, and the transformation of the elegant railways building into an exclusive, five-star Peninsula hotel. “The whole site is really anchored by this building,” says Yoma’s chief executive officer, Andrew Rickards. “It’s always been our view that by preserving that building, you’re preserving a sense of history of the site. Whilst it would be a lot cheaper to start again, it was never in our minds.”

The railways building has been in the hands of the Yoma group for more than 15 years. Yet many of Yangon’s solid Raj-era structures, dating from the 19th and early 20th centuries, remain stuck in a morass of ownership uncertainty and government hesitation, preventing both destruction and any attempt at large-scale conservation. In many cases, the need for maintenance is becoming acute.

The military regime built Myanmar a new capital, Naypyidaw, and bureaucrats began the shift north in 2005. This enormous official exodus entailed the evacuation of an army of bureaucrats, who largely abandoned their offices in Yangon to vigorous weeds and insect-life. For many of these buildings, where the mould is spreading and the vegetation growing ever more luxuriant, the need for some sort of maintenance is becoming more urgent. If these structures are neglected for too much longer, demolition may become the only option.

“Many buildings need renovation, but the thing is, many buildings have a problem with ownership,” says Moe Moe Lwin, executive director of the Yangon Heritage Trust, a non-government organisation formed to push for some measure of architectural conservation in Yangon. “Even government buildings; the responsibility is sometimes split between different ministries. But this is particularly a problem with privately-owned buildings. Sometimes the owners can’t be traced.”

So the city’s tangled past may well have saved some of these private sector buildings from destruction, at least for the moment. The real ownership of these substantial structures has been lost in the shadows of WWII, Myanmar’s military coup and the city’s shifting populations. Indians once owned much of downtown Yangon, but many were pushed out following the military coup in 1962, and many of the buildings have long-standing tenants who have some claim to stay in their homes.

Yangon authorities have been hesitant to stir up public unrest by pushing sales of any privately or publicly-owned buildings. The imposing High Court building, for one, has been the subject of heated debate. In 2012, lawyers took to the streets to protest against the sale of the storied structure to private developers. The red edifice is still in use, functioning as offices for government law departments, but it needs attention. A local entrepreneur has offered to fund the Court building’s maintenance in return for the use of two upper floors as a library, which on the face of it sounds an ideal solution. Yet the building remains shabby and untended because the parties could not agree.

Moe Moe Lwin shrugs her shoulders. “A compromise could not be reached, so nothing has been done,” she says. “There is legislation, a cultural heritage law, but actually it doesn’t apply in the city,” she adds, explaining that the existing law only applies to ancient structures such as some of the Buddhist temples in the northern town of Bagan. “There’s nothing like that here; nothing that would apply in this city. We’ve drawn up heritage protection legislation, and submitted it to the regional government, but nothing has happened yet.”