Conservation Strategy Drafted for Historic Rangoon

RANGOON—A conference on protecting the iconic colonial-era buildings that hark back to Rangoon’s illustrious past has warned that urgent action is needed to save the city’s century-old heritage.

“Towards a Conservation Strategy for Yangon in the 21st Century” is the very first conference of its kind aiming at protecting Burma’s national heritage. Organized by the Yangon Heritage Trust (YHT) non-governmental organization on Friday, the event aims to prepare a strategy to be presented to the Naypyidaw authorities in the next few weeks.

“We need to protect what we have, urgently. If we do nothing, we will lose our heritage within a few short years and there will be no opportunity to turn back [the clock],” said Dr. Thant Myint-U, the founder and chairman of the YHT, in his opening remarks.

Among the points included in the draft strategy are passing a heritage conservation law and listing valuable buildings that are currently in private hands, said Mie Mie Tin, deputy director of the Urban and Regional Planning Division of the Ministry of Construction, who also submitted a paper on heritage conservation.

“We want to see Rangoon as a city of the future, but we want to protect our heritage and preserve the best of what we have. It’s very important,” agreed Myint Swe, the chief minister for Rangoon Region, in his opening speech.

Myint Swe added that he and his colleagues were ready to listen to all ideas and recommendations from local and international experts attending the conference.

Topics discussed at the day-long event included dealing with the challenge of urban conservation, setting a framework on regulations for preservation and planning, and exploring the historic urban landscape while allowing for development.

Thant Myint-U said that conservation efforts should not be seen as holding back development, and it is vital to promote and protect Rangoon’s old buildings in a way that will raise awareness of its cosmopolitan past and multicultural present.

Burma’s former capital retains one of the best colonial-era cityscapes in the world with 189 listed buildings and 11 ancient monuments, according to Mie Mie Tin.

But most of these century-old buildings are dilapidated from long neglect and remain in danger of having to be demolished to make way for looming development—perhaps “within the next year or two,” as the YHT information handout put it.

Close to the waterfront —along Strand Road and Lower Pansodan Road (formerly Phayre Street)—is a wonderful collection of period buildings, including the old offices of Hong Kong-Shanghai Bank, Lloyds, Standard and Charted, Thomas Cook, Irrawaddy Flotilla Company, Bombay Burma Trading Company as well as the Strand Hotel itself, according to the YHT.

Other buildings included the all-teak Pegu Club—where Rudyard Kipling spent the night before writing “Mandalay”—and the grand red-brick Secretariat, with its Venetian towers and elegant porticos, where Burmese independence hero Aung San, the father of currently opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, was assassinated in 1947.

“As the country opens up, investors will surely come,” said Thaw Kaung, the ex-librarian of Rangoon University’s Central Library, who attended the conference. “I’m afraid that these old buildings will be torn down to make way for development.”

Thant Myint-U told The Irrawaddy that even though Burma is now at an economic watershed, he remains optimistic that Rangoon has the potential to become one of the best-preserved cities on the continent.

“Rangoon could possibly lose her heritage as other Southeast Asian cities have done,” he said. “But with a good plan and strategy to preserve old buildings, it could be on the list of Asia’s most beautiful and livable cities in five or ten years.”

The respected historian also said that it is crucial not to displace local communities as a result of attempts to preserve old buildings. Many dilapidated structures are currently inhabited by squatter families who stand to lose their homes when restoration work begins.

“We need to move forward with a conservation strategy, create jobs for people and help and not displace local communities, celebrate the city’s diversity, invite international investment, encourage tourism and test new models on private and public partnership,” said Thant Myint-U.

“We need to make sure the city remains for the Burmese who live here and that they really feel comfortable living in it—not just one more Asian city for rich people,” said Michael  J. Montesano, a visiting research fellow from the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

6 Responses to Conservation Strategy Drafted for Historic Rangoon

  1. Please do not forget the beautiful lakes in our city and please stop the municipality selling land to restaurants, amusement parks and golf ranges that destroy the beauty and pollute the lakes.

  2. Let’s hope TMU and Mie Mie Tin’s timely efforts do not get bulldozed and steamrollered over.I’d hate Yangon to look like another faceless postmodern capital given over to shopping malls, office blocks, high rise towers and posh estates for the rich, cheek by jowl with slums and sweatshops for the ordinary working folk, with the infrastructure of transport, healthcare and education barely coping or not at all. No prizes for guessing what the priorities are going to be notwithstanding all the right buzz words and lip service you can expect these days. They are pretty fast learners when it comes to PR.

    Yes, we must keep this part of the colonial heritage for both aesthetic and commercial reasons, and not give in to the vandalism by money mad philistines of the world in their single-minded pursuit for profits.

  3. Fully support.
    The most wise man task the Burmese Government ever taken up.
    Proud of you.

  4. Dr.TM-U is absolutely spot on and speaks for the city. We’ve watched aghast at the get-rich-quick activities of well-placed businessfolk, tearing down the city’s heritage to make vast profits for themselves… and those who help them. Enough of your greed and selfishness.

  5. I am delighted to hear that there is such an awareness of preservation for Rangoon’s remarkable architectural heritage.

    I visited the city in 1986 and was awestruck at the uniqueness of the architectural fabric and the culture therein. I was also concerned that one day the choice may be made to raze these structures instead of wisely preserving them. I thought, does Rangoon truly realize what an asset they posses, just waiting for a loving restoration? The pagoda sites are obvious signs of greatness, but Rangoon also possesses many world-class examples of the Victorian and Edwardian styles, that many Western cities would be jealous of, because they have allowed theirs to be destroyed.

    As the author of CALCUTTA’S EDIFICE: THE BUILDINGS OF A GREAT CITY (Rupa & Co. Delhi, 2006: 733pp.; colour & b&w illust., maps), I am intimately familiar with the challenges of dealing with preservation of structures in a large Asian city. Calcutta, a city that has in the past been written off as a disaster, has instead made significant progress in not only appreciating their own spectacular architectural heritage, they have also made some excellent restorations of buildings from their colonial era that were previously assumed to be doomed. Like many ex-colonial localities, the knowledge of past imperialism persists, but the appreciation of its remains is mature and well-measured. The Victoria Memorial in Calcutta is one of the most beloved sites in the city, and is visited by millions every year.

    As far as restoration is concerned, consider the cities in the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania: they have wisely and carefully restored their amazing architectural heritages. The result is that they are enjoying great success with visitors of all kinds. They have not created a precious ‘Disneyland’ of tourist-grade novelties. Rather, they have established meaningful environments of value and practicality that work well and provide inspiring atmospheres for both citizens and visitors.

    Rangoon stands at the crossroads of the same possibilities. It’s a choice: to preserve things that are original and exceptional, or to make an environment that deadens the soul and leads nowhere.

    Stewards of Rangoon the Remarkable, please, do not make the same mistakes that callous developers have made elsewhere in the world! Retain what you have and make it exceptional! It will be totally worth the planning, effort and expense. Not only will the world be impressed, Burma and Rangoon itself will have a reason to be justifiably proud!

  6. theodora von Studnitz

    My husband and I visit Burma since 1963! as tourists.We have enjoyed every stay in Your wonderfull country and absolutely will continue comming.Please reconstruct to preserve all Your exeptionall colonial buildings and be proud of Your heritage.This will attract interested cultivated people all over the world and tempts them to come and visit Myanmar to get to know it and their people.

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