‘There Must Be a Balance Between Conservation and Development’

By The Irrawaddy 22 May 2015

On this week’s edition of Dateline Irrawaddy, the panel focuses on urban planning in Rangoon and the arguments for a conservation management plan to protect Shwedagon Pagoda.

Kyaw Zwa Moe: This week, we’ll be discussing potential threats to the future of Shwedagon Pagoda, a sacred site to Burmese people and one of the world’s wonders. Joining me are Saya U Than Moe, an urban planning expert and visiting professor at Yangon Technological University, and Ko Maw Lin, vice-chairman of Association of Myanmar Architects and visiting professor at the Mandalay Technological University. I am Irrawaddy Editor Kyaw Zwa Moe.

Last Sunday, the Association of Myanmar Architects organized a well-attended forum on the conservation of Shwedagon, which presented recommendations to President U Thein Sein. The majority of Burma’s people are not aware of the type of threats Shwedagon Pagoda is potentially facing. Would you please explain?

Maw Lin: It is like this. We organized the ‘Save Yangon’ form around December last year, spreading the message that Yangon is in danger and needs protection and conservation. We also presented recommendations to the president that time. In these recommendations, we stressed that Yangon is extremely crowded, and some places are witnessing very serious traffic woes, and we can’t just stand by and watch that happening.

While we were talking about Yangon, we found that cultural heritage like Shwedagon and Sule Pagodas—important structures which have cultural, historical and religious significance—have also come under threat. Shwedagon Pagoda is sacred to the entire nation. There is no control over construction projects in its vicinity. There is no urban control and planning. We think developers and authorities are undertaking the projects as they please. There must be controls and detailed plans in undertaking those projects. We held the forum because we believe that restrictions must be imposed on those projects through rules and regulations.

KZM: Saya U Than Moe, as far as I understand, there are five high-rise construction projects in the surrounding area of Singuttara Hill where Shwedagon Pagoda lies. Previously the project site between the East Gate and South Gate of Shwedagon Pagoda was owned by the Armed Forces. Rich businessmen and foreign investors were permitted to develop the land. From the urban planning point of view, how could these projects impact Shwedagaon?

Than Moe: The Department of Human Settlement and Housing Development, in cooperation with UN-Habitat, drew an urban development plan for Yangon called ‘Yangon City in Regional Development’ in 1986. Then in 2012, the Ministry of Construction drew up a plan called ‘Vision 2040’ which examined how to cope with growing population and how to create conservation areas. Then, the Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC), in cooperation with the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), drew up the ‘Yangon Strategic Plan’ in 2013.

We organized at least four public hearings and explained the plans to people and sought their opinions. These three plans, which were developed in three different periods, advocated for transforming Yangon from a city with a mono-centered central business district into a city that was multi-centered. They prohibit major land use developments near the central business district, which it calls the development control area. Areas which are at least eight miles or more from the central business district are designated as development promotion areas.

KZM: So, the projects we are talking about are against those plans.

TM: Yes, those projects are being carried out in development area.

KZM: Ko Maw Lin, a letter has been sent to the president. No matter how much activists campaign against those development projects, authorities do not seem to listen to them. As I have said, the project is being carried out on land that was owned by Armed Forces. It is largely associated with the government as permission comes from them. Among the developers are cronies. As far as I understand there are four developers implementing five projects near Shwedagon Pagoda. They are Shwe Taung Development Co., Ltd, Thu Kha Yadanar Co., Ltd, Marga Landmark Development Co., Ltd and Adventure Myanmar Tour & Incentives Co., Ltd. What action do you think the president can take to address it? Do you think he is able to do anything?

ML: Rather than talking about the question of whether he can or not, I think he should address it. He is obliged to control such a project. To be frank, I don’t know much about the companies you have mentioned. But as Saya U Than Moe has said, from the point of view of urban planning, such projects should not be undertaken. From a cultural and religious point of view, Shwedagon Pagoda is a source of real cultural heritage. Such a place should be used as public space, for we are seriously short of public space. The president has to exercise control.

We need to take a very serious consideration as the projects are already in the process of being implemented. We are not calling for the termination of the projects. There are many other places in Yangon where development projects can be undertaken. There is no reason that the projects must be done at the foot of Shwedagon Pagoda. There are other places where the developments can be made instead. If developments are to be undertaken near Shwedagon, proper research must be done. If there are already plans in place as mentioned by Saya U Than Moe, they should be revised to check if they can be realized or not, to check how serious traffic congestion will become, how much trouble people will experience. The problem and interests of the majority people must be taken into account.

It is the duty of the president. He must give consideration to Yangon residents and Myanmar people at the forefront of his mind. From the point of view of urban planning, thorough research should be made on how much more serious traffic congestion can become. Saya U Nyan Myint Kyaw said at the forum that the structure and current strength of Shwedagon Pagoda has not been thoroughly studied. So far, they have only studied the strength of the upper part of the pagoda. Research should be done on the entire structure. It has still not been done because there is no money. How can it be that there is no money for conducting such a study? Such research should be done, as it is important for the country. Water experts said that a thorough risk assessment must be made to check the conditions of underground water table.

KZM: We men in the street do not know about water tables. What will happen if something is wrong with water table?

ML: If something went wrong with water table, the pagoda may sink, tilt or slide. Some say that situation has already gone beyond redemption, but we don’t think so. Only when the buildings are built there could it be said the situation has gone beyond redemption. So far, it has not passed that point. It can be saved. So, proper research must be made and the president must consider if the place should be public space or not. I think the president has to make a decision depending on his vision and his critical thinking.

KZM: With regard to public space, there are lands owned by the ministries and the military in Yangon and in many cases, they give those lands to businessmen and developers who carry out big construction projects on those lands and share the profits with them. Can they do so, Saya?

TM: The 1892 Town and Village Act does not allow this. If a government department does not use land that it owns, it must return that land to the government. If a land designated to be used as cantonment is no longer used as a cantonment, it must be returned to the government. The government must carry out urban development schemes that are suitable to the current era and harmonize with the town. Only when such a scheme is carried out can prevent government ministries and departments from the building of condos and the like in a development control area. But now, government departments are leasing out lands for housing projects.

KZM: So they are breaking the law?

TM: I don’t know if they don’t know the law or if this is intentional.

KZM: Ko Maw Lin, you have engaged in ‘Save Yangon’ and ‘Save Shwedagon’ forums. What do you want the area around Shwedagon Pagoda to look like to people? How do you want to shape that area? Would you discuss?

ML: Shwedagon Pagoda should stand in isolation as a site of cultural, urban and national heritage. Shwedagon Pagoda can be seen as one enters the Yangon River from the mouth. It can be seen along U Wisara Road as one comes from Insein. Yangonites should be able to see it and its surroundings should also be conserved. In other countries, for example in Paris, nothing is allowed to be built in the area surrounding the Eiffel Tower. Heights are limited. Likewise, any cultural heritage sites and their surrounding areas are conserved in cities like London, Rome and Greece. Developments are not allowed recklessly there, like they are in our country.

I mean, there must be a balance between conservation and development. Development can affect conservation and vice versa. We must strike a balance between them. To do so, we need a conservation management plan. Only with such plans and controls, we will be able to save Shwedagon. Again, we need bodies to save the pagoda. There is Board of Trustees for Shwedagon. They are devoting themselves to the pagoda. But when it comes to technical matters, I think we might need a management body comprised of experts, people’s representatives and community elders for the sustainable management of the pagoda. Only when there are plans, bodies and laws will we be able to preserve Shwedagon properly.

KZM: So, as Ko Maw Lin said we have yet to wait and see how far the president will go to save the pagoda. Surely there is still time? Saya U Than Moe, Ko Maw Lin, thank you for joining the discussion.