The Secretariat’s Second Chance

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 8 May 2013

RANGOON—Of all the colonial structures in Myanmar, few are as historically important as the Secretariat, an imposing Victorian complex beyond a barbed wire fence in downtown Yangon.

The red brick building at No. 300 Theinbyu Road served as the headquarters for the British-Burma administration during colonial times and later for Myanmar’s independent government. It was here that independence hero Bogyoke Aung San and his colleagues were assassinated in 1947, shortly before the country became a free republic, and where many of Myanmar’s most important Parliament officials worked in the coming years.

“The Secretariat is a building of immense importance to Burmese history,” said renowned historian U Thant Myint-U, founder of the Yangon Heritage Trust, an NGO working to preserve some of the country’s century-old architecture. “It’s also one of the most beautiful buildings in Asia.”

But despite its historical significance, the 120-year-old Secretariat, like many buildings of the former capital’s colonial era, now stands in a terrible state. The Baroque complex sprawls across 16 acres of land, but foliage creeps up its crumbling Venetian domes, weather has worn down the ornate turrets and boards now cover up the windows.

With a broken clock tower at the main entrance, the Secretariat’s edifice takes the appearance of a giant one-eyed Cyclops, gazing out idly at a city that has rushed quickly into the future—at newly minted cars driving down the road and foreign businesses rushing in—as Myanmar opens up to the world after more than 50 years of isolation.

A Second Lease on Life

A lack of development under the military regime left entire streets of old buildings untouched in Yangon, creating one of the world’s best preserved colonial cityscapes today. In need of renovation, however, this architectural legacy has come under threat of demolishment recently, after a nominally civilian government took power in 2011 and more tourists began flooding into the country.

For a time, Myanmar’s Tourism Promotion Board weighed the option of turning the derelict Secretariat into a hotel, but the idea was met with public outcry.

Now, as its façade continues to crumble, the Secretariat may soon see a second lease on life. Last year, an organization of artists and art collectors won rights from the Myanmar Investment Commission to restore the building’s architecture and preserve it in the long term as a historical museum and cultural center.

The art organization, Anawmar Group, first became interested in the old colonial building for its historical significance and rich architectural value. Daw Le Yee Soe, the group’s director, said the organization planned to open a new art and history museum along with an art library, and to organize other activities related to Myanmar’s traditional arts.

Through the Decades

After the 1962 military coup, the former Secretariat became the Ministers’ Office, a function it served until the military regime suddenly moved its administrative capital in 2005 to Naypyidaw, a city built on shrubland about 200 miles north of Yangon.

The complex has been neglected ever since, despite its placement on the Yangon City Heritage List for more than 15 years. Until the handover to Anawmar Group last year, the building was used as a temporary camp for security troops that were occasionally deployed downtown.

Inside the western wing of the complex, a wooden stairway near the main entrance leads to a room upstairs where assassins gunned down Bogyoke Aung San, the independence leader and father of democracy icon Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, during a meeting in 1947.

The room has changed much over the past six decades. Once filled with meeting tables and chairs for politicians, the space has been transformed into a prayer hall with a Buddhist shrine on the far east wall. The only reminder of the tragic day 66 years ago is a portrait of the national hero hanging above a cupboard.

“Maybe the room was converted into a prayer hall to wipe away the bad luck here,” a visitor said when The Irrawaddy toured the site last month.

Walking beneath the collapsed ceiling, the reek of crumbled brick and rotting wood assaults the senses. Pigeon droppings are scattered along a corridor.

Outside, the old Parliament building stands in a weed-choked courtyard near the north wing of the complex. In stark contrast to the Parliament’s current headquarters in Naypyidaw, this small one-story brick building has the appearance of a country cottage.

Daw Le Yee Soe said Anawmar Group plans to begin the restoration project on the southern wing, though it is currently waiting for approval from the Yangon municipality. The project’s first phase, on the southern wing, the former Parliament building and two other wings, will take about a year and a half to complete, she said.

The art group collaborated with the Yangon Heritage Trust to conduct a detailed technical study of possible renovation methods and options for the building’s use.
“We brought in top international experts, drew on excellent existing work by Burmese officials and scholars, and closely consulted with Anawmar Group and others,” U Thant Myint-U said in late January. “The study is now complete and will be publicly shared within a week or two.”

Daw Le Yee Soe said she could not yet provide an expected opening date for the museum and cultural center, saying the project would continue step by step.

“Our first priority is to open the historical museum, which will include Gen. Aung San’s office and the room where he was assassinated,” she said. “We’re going to restore the office and the room to their former status. We hope to open the museum next year, as soon as possible.”

This story first appeared in the March 2013 print issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.