Lawyers Protest Colonial Buildings’ Privatization

A fence has been erected around the Police Commissioner Office while it waits the renovation project that will convert it into a hotel. (PHOTO: JPaing)

A fence has been erected around the Police Commissioner Office while it waits the renovation project that will convert it into a hotel. (PHOTO: JPaing)

RANGOON—After their appeals to the government to preserve two colonial buildings fell on deaf ears, lawyers in Burma’s former capital are preparing to stage a protest to bring attention to their demands.

The Myanmar Lawyers Network said it is now seeking permission to hold a demonstration early next week to protest the sale of the 101-year-old High Court and the Police Commissioner Office in downtown Rangoon to a consortium of local and Chinese businessmen.

The Myanmar Lawyers Network said it had previously cited a 1988 preservation law that carries a five-year prison term for anyone who makes structural changes to landmark buildings as a legal means to nullify the sale of the buildings, which were auctioned off by the previous military government that ceded power in 2011.

“We have requested a halt to the privatization [of the buildings] and presented solid evidence three times to the president and speakers of both Houses of Parliament,” said Kyee Myint, one of the Network members. “However, we have had no response from them, so we are going to take to the streets.”

He explained that both buildings have long played important roles in the country’s judiciary system. However, when the military regime moved the capital to Naypyidaw in 2005, the High Court was downgraded to Rangoon Divisional Court while the Police Commissioner Office became a township court and legal offices. The township court was relocated in May this year and the building was abandoned. A fence was erected around the edifice while it waits the renovation project that will convert it into a hotel.

“It would be such a shame for these buildings to be turned into a hotel and museum,” Kyee Myint added. “We want them to remain as they are.”

Another reason to stop the move is that both buildings appear on the city’s National Heritage List, he said.

“We simply want to preserve our national heritage. It’s questionable whether handing over national heritage sites to the private sector is lawful,” said Ko Ni, another lawyer from Myanmar Lawyers Network.

He said next week’s protest would involve about 100 lawyers, but that they would not chant slogans for fear that they would be arrested for causing public disorder.

The call for the preservation of British colonial buildings comes amid sweeping changes in Burma, officially known as Myanmar, which has been described as a country frozen in time during its half-century of military rule. One of the only cities in Asia with its colonial heritage still intact, Burma is becoming a magnet for economic development as it opens to the outside world.

The former colonial-era Police Commissioner’s Office is a sprawling two-story structure that takes up a square block close to the famed Strand Hotel. In recent years it served as a court complex and is replete with courtrooms, judges’ chambers and other legal offices.

“A Chinese company is going to turn the old Police Commissioner’s Office into a hotel,” lawyer Aung Thein said. “We have to stop this before it goes any further. The Network will exhaust all legal means to stop this privatization deal.”

The lawyers also oppose the sale of the former High Court building to a developer who hopes to convert the red-brick clock-towered structure built in 1911 into a museum and restaurant.

Conservationists have launched a major effort to preserve Rangoon’s architecture and held an international conference in the city in June to draw attention to the cause.

Burma’s economic hub currently provides a measure of protection for 188 sites, but many conservationists fear that some will deteriorate beyond repair or be bought and demolished by developers.

4 Responses to Lawyers Protest Colonial Buildings’ Privatization

  1. Rule of law being tested. If lawyers can’t get anywhere  what chance does the rest of us have? They’d sell their own mother if the price is right, and they’ve already tried it with Myitsone.

  2. George Than Setkyar Heine

    Selling national heritage to the Chinese is akin to SELLING THE SOUL of BURMA no less. 
    Heritage says the HISTORY of the country and MAKING HISTORY DISAPPEAR by SELLING HERITAGE is tantamount to committing CRIME as well no less lest Thein Sein forgets. 
    His boss SOLD the IRRAWADDY and he is SELLING the NATIONAL HERITAGE today. 
    And Thein Sein is also a PARTY to CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY/WAR CRIMES committed by his boss Than Shwe and should FACE the MUSIC at The Hague  no less as well. 
    Of course the REALITY on the GROUND today is Than Shwe HOLDS the REINS – National Defense and Security Council in the Nargis constitution – of the country while his CLERK (Thein Sein) RUNS the PUPPET PARLIAMENT at Naypyidaw. 
    And Daw Suu is SITTING in IDLE MODE, CLUELESS over what to do NEXT  in Thein Sein’s  PUPPET PARLIAMENT today.
    The OPPOSITION LEADER is ENTRUSTED with the TASK – head the RULE of LAW commission – supposed to be Thein Sein’s in the first place. 
    Hence, HER ROLE as OPPOSITION LEADER in Thein Sein’s puppet parliament is NEUTRALIZED like U Khun Htun Oo has said as ONE TAKING ASSIGNMENTS if not ORDERS from Than Shwe’s CLERK only no doubt.
    And I am CLUELESS as well.
    Than Shwe, Thein Sein or Daw Suu?

  3. I see no problem in a change of use for the building providing the aesthetics are not damaged in any way. It is quite common for buildings to experience several changes of use in their lifetimes, this is only natural as society evolves. Having said that, the authorities must ensure that the general fabric of the building is not altered in substantial way, just as they must ensure that any structural alterations are safe and in keeping with the general style.

    Of more concern is that lawyers are afraid to protest! What sort of “rule of law” do we have when the very people who represent it and other individuals are afraid of it?

  4. The more people who can actually enter and interact with these awe-inspiring, wonderful buildings, the better. It’s very questionable whether a consortium of Chinese-MM businesspeople is the best way to make this happen though – I won’t hold my breath.

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