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.