Yangon Historical Districts under Threat

A staircase inside the former Accountant-General’s Office, now the divisional courthouse. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian

UK Newspaper the Guardian published this week a special report about changes in Yangon skyline.

Along with the arrival of democracy and the first civilian government since 1962, Myanmar is also embracing the novelty of unbridled speculative development. Six months on from the election that swept the Nobel prize-winning campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi’s party to power, the skyline of Yangon is bristling with cranes and concrete frames as a clutch of new towers rises above the mouldering rooftops of the old colonial centre. With the city’s population set to double to 10 million over the next two decades, flocks of foreign investors are circling, eager to reap the spoils of Asia’s “final frontier market”. The fragile historic fabric, along with the people it houses, has never been under such pressure.

“With every new building bidding for the best view of the Shwedagon Pagoda, we’re not going to have any views left,” says Daw Moe Moe Lwin, director of the Yangon Heritage Trust (YHT), a campaign group founded in 2012 by architects and historians keen to save south-east Asia’s last surviving colonial core. It has been an uphill battle in a place that still doesn’t have a formalised planning system, and where many public buildings have been swiftly privatised in deals that allowed the generals of the disappearing dictatorship to fill their pockets in the process.

Walk in any direction from the trust’s HQ on Pansodan Street, and it’s easy to see why Lwin is so concerned about the future of her city. Downtown Yangon is an enchanting, open-air museum of faded colonial grandeur – as lovingly documented in a recent architectural guidebook to the city – but looks like it might collapse at any minute.

A few doors down from Lwin’s office stands the creamy, Italianate pile of the Sofaer building, built by wealthy Baghdadi Jewish merchants in 1906. It features steel beams made in Lanarkshire and encaustic floor tiles from Manchester, exotic imports that reflect the eclectic mix of shops it used to house, selling everything from German beer to Egyptian cigars and English sweets.

Once the city’s most prestigious commercial addresses, it had one of the first electric lifts in the country. Now, the rusty caged lift shaft is piled high with rubbish. The building’s light well has also become a dumping ground, its walls caked in soot and moss, its floor bristling with rats. Yet the place remains in use. Lawyers run their practices from tiny, windowless cubicles upstairs, an art gallery operates from the first floor, while a fancy Japanese restaurant recently opened on the corner – the fit-out entailed clearing away a metre-deep pile of sewage.

“We still carry on,” says one of the lawyers, sitting in his cupboard-sized office, a room wallpapered with colourful posters of imaginary landscapes with rolling green fields merging into gushing waterfalls. “There hasn’t been any investment in infrastructure for half a century here, so we’re more than used to these conditions.”

The YHT wants to see buildings such as this restored to their former glory, but the reality is not so simple. The messy legacy of British-Indian rule, Japanese occupation and property nationalisation carried out by the military junta, and its ensuing collapse, has left the city with complex patterns of ownership. Title deeds have often been lost in the mists of time – eaten by white ants or washed away by Cyclone Nargis are two common claims – meaning that most of these historic buildings are likely to remain in limbo.

Other institutions struggle on in post-apocalyptic surrounds. At the divisional courthouse, a palatial complex of octagonal towers and Florentine domes originally built as the accounting office of British Burma, the windows have blown out and vegetation sprouts from every nook, yet inside the decaying shell, the courts continue to press on. Defendants sit on plastic stools before the judges, while clerks hammer away on typewriters out on the street beneath makeshift tarpaulin canopies.

Yangon was simply left to rot for decades. Less than half of the city has access to piped water, while constant power shortages mean the streets are clogged with backup generators. Roads were widened in the 1990s in a vain attempt to ease traffic flow, leaving far narrower pavements: this also made it harder for large numbers of people to gather, public meetings being a constant concern of the former regime. The streets used to be lined with covered colonnades, providing shade from the sun and protection from monsoon rains, but they, too, were torn down.

What was once a perfectly walkable city is now a hostile place to navigate on foot. It’s not hard to see why developers are now proposing self-contained fiefdoms with everything supplied on site; including their own power generation and water supply, thereby creating hermetic worlds of offices and apartment towers perched on retail podiums, so you never have to leave your air-conditioned bubble.

The most lavish such scheme is currently being drawn up for the site of the former Burma Railway Company headquarters, a stately, redbrick Victorian building just north of downtown. Not much has changed since the 1870s; the current state of Burmese rail travel can be experienced by taking a ride on the city’s Circle line, which takes three hours to chug along a 28-mile loop around the city, moving no faster than a bicycle.

A recent deal with Japanese firm Mitsubishi will see the line upgraded, but the benevolence comes with a catch: in exchange for speed, the company has been awarded exclusive development rights to state-owned land along the tracks. A $500m (£344m) mixed-use scheme near the central station is now in the works, which, according to one source close to the project, will look like “a chunk of Tokyo airlifted into Yangon”. It is no coincidence that Japan’s aid agency, JICA, has enthusiastically drawn up an infrastructure-heavy masterplan for Yangon’s development over the next 25 years, described by one aid worker as “an investment plan for Japanese business”.

But the Mitsubishi scheme will be a mere speck in comparison to what’s being dreamed up next door. Myanmar Railways is currently tendering a $2bn project of high-rise hotels, office towers and shopping centres across a 63-acre site, by far the biggest commercial development the country has ever seen, of a scale unthinkable a few years ago.

“The market has really exploded,” says Tony Picon, managing director of Colliers International in Myanmar. When he moved here in 2011, office rents were around $17 a square metre per month. A few years later, they had hit $100, making central Yangon a more expensive place to do business than downtown Manhattan, despite the average wage being just $2 a day. “Since the country opened up, more and more businesses have been flooding in trying to get a foothold here,” Picon says. “Supply simply can’t keep up with demand.”

A taste of what this steroidal supply might look like can be found in the offices of Yoma Strategic Holdings, a company owned by local tycoon Serge Pun, where plans for the former Burma Railway Company site are currently being drawn up. Images of the scheme, boldly christened the Landmark, show the elegant Victorian building cowering at the base of four vast towers – more offices, serviced apartments and hotels – sitting on a four-storey shopping mall that seems to be doing its best to throttle the historic structure (which will itself become a five-star Peninsular hotel, impeccably restored to the tune of $100m).

“It will be uber luxury,” says project manager Steven Purvis. “We’ll have only the very best of the premium brands.” The nearby street stalls, selling the ubiquitous parcels of chewing tobacco wrapped in betel leaves, aren’t likely to last much longer. They’ll be swept away, along with their accompanying red saliva stains on the pavement.

Rising to 25 storeys, the towers will be the same height as the nearby Sule Shangri-La hotel, a brutish megalith erected in the 1990s, whose construction provided the regime with a convenient excuse to level a group of coffee houses that were a popular hangout for the city’s activists and intellectuals. “It was the biggest mistake the city ever made,” says Lwin of the hotel. “The height of that hotel has now become the justification for every other development in town.”

The YHT successfully campaigned to introduce height restrictions around the Shwedagon Pagoda, along the lines of the building limits around St Paul’s Cathedral in London, but the rules have no statutory power and are barely enforceable. It appears that the government listens only when the monks join the cries of public protest, as they did in February last year.

Five major construction projects in the vicinity of the pagoda were halted by the government after a powerful national Buddhist group, the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, claimed the developments would affect the foundations of the temple. It was a spurious accusation, with no real structural calculations to back it up, but the authorities were sufficiently spooked by the ire of the holy men.

The lawyers of Yangon could have done with a little divine intervention in their recent battle against the privatisation of the former high court and police commissioner’s office, a grand classical edifice whose ionic colonnade marches around an entire city block facing the waterfront on Strand Road. The place has a dark history; its top floors were used as torture chambers by the Japanese during the second world war and by the military regime in the 1960s and 70s. They will soon become the luxury spa of a new five-star Kempinski hotel, due to open next year.

“Communities that have lived on land for generations are routinely charged with ‘trespass’ and Myanmar’s land laws fail to adequately protect their rights.” Earlier this year, a mass eviction in a shanty town in Yangon’s Mingaladon Township caused several hundred families to be homeless without compensation or resettlement plans.

“I’ve not seen such a bad situation anywhere in the world,” says Mike Slingsby, an adviser to UN Habitat, whose career has taken him from slums in Vietnam and Cambodia to Bangladesh, India and Afghanistan. “Yangon is the only city where for the last 50 years no one has done anything to improve the lives of the slum dwellers. NGOs simply haven’t been allowed in.”

“Myanmar is not a poor country,” Slingsby adds. “The rich are extremely rich. It’s just a question of how they spend their money.” The signs of wealth are everywhere, from the luxury gated village of the Pun Hlaing Golf Estate to the towers around swimming pools of Star City, both projects of the Pun empire.

Yangon City Development Committee recently announced that it would temporarily suspend the construction of high-rise buildings which did not have final approval from the engineering department.

The green light would only be given after inspections were made on the ground, it said. In principle, the YCDC should grant permits for nine- to 12-storey buildings at committee meetings and projects of 13 storeys and above are left to the Yangon Region government.

The High-Rise Building Inspection Committee studies the designs of up to 12-storey buildings and the Committee for Quality Control of High Rise Building Construction Projects looks at higher designs. The engineering department gives final approval for projects.

The YCDC should carry out detailed inspections on the high-rise buildings by forming coordination teams. YCDC figures said it had granted permits for 83 buildings from nine to 12 storeys and 96 permits for 13 or more storeys.

(Source: The Guardian)