‘The Government Can’t Turn a Blind Eye’

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 16 March 2015

Like many other Yangon residents, U Maw Lin is deeply worried by the unregulated, rapid urbanization that has plagued Myanmar’s former capital, especially since 2011. In December, the vice president of the Association for Myanmar Architects joined like-minded experts to send an open letter to the country’s president, requesting “urgent action” to save the city of more than 7.3 million people. U Maw Lin spoke with The Irrawaddy’s Kyaw Phyo Tha about his concerns and vision for the future of his native city.

Question: Do you see any solutions to the unruly urbanization that is threatening Yangon?

Answer: If the central and regional governments don’t take it seriously, the problems Yangon is facing today will only deteriorate… The government may also suffer because if something negative affects the public, it damages the government’s image too.

In Yangon today, public spaces are disappearing. Traffic congestion is getting worse. The government can’t turn a blind eye. It also can’t address these issues on its own. Recommendations from experts must be welcomed as well as public participation.

We need concrete legal frameworks on land-use and zoning to deter unruly urbanization. The problems we have today are the legacy of the government’s actions in the past, especially their mismanagement of urban planning. In some downtown areas, the population and building density is very high. If a natural disaster hits those areas, the residents have few escape routes or assembly points. That is just the tip of the iceberg. If the government doesn’t respond to these problems seriously now, Yangon will be in serious danger.

Q: How do you assess some of the government’s initiatives, like expanding the width of roads?

A: In the downtown area, they are expanding the busiest main roads by shrinking the sidewalks on both sides to provide for parking spaces. When cars stop to park in those spaces… other vehicles have to wait, causing traffic congestion.

On those shrinking sidewalks, hordes of vendors are squeezing each other out to do their trade and there is virtually no space left for people to walk. Have you seen this in other countries?

Q: In recent years, there has been much criticism over the loss of public spaces to development projects in Yangon. Could you comment?

A: It’s more than clear that if there are public spaces, people appreciate and use them. Go and have a look at Maha Bandoola Park near Sule Pagoda. It’s teeming with people in the mornings and afternoons. We used to have many public spaces in Yangon. But many of them are now disappearing to make way for development, including as a result of when ministries offer tenders to businessmen.

The government should understand that making money is not always good for the wider public. They should put people’s interests first, rather than how much profit they can make out of these tenders.

Now development is underway just under the shadow of the Shwedagon Pagoda, the crown jewel of Yangon. They could have these kinds of development projects in other parts of Yangon but they want them in that prime area. They are crossing the line.

Q: Do you think Yangon has the potential to become a “livable city” again, as it was once famous for?

A: Well, only when we manage to have a proper public transportation system; enact laws on land-use, zoning plans and heritage conservation; create more public spaces, and so on. If this occurs it would be likely that Yangon could restore its former status within a few decades.

For this to happen, we need support from the government. Anyone with political power must care for the people. If they don’t, they shouldn’t be in their positions. If they are only interested in making big money with businessmen, nothing good will happen to Yangon—not to mention the whole country.

This interview originally appeared in the Mar. 2015 edition of The Irrawaddy Magazine.