Burmese Lawyers Push to Save Colonial Buildings
By Aye Aye Win 11 September 2012
RANGOON—Lawyers in Burma vowed on Tuesday to fight the sale of Rangoon’s 101-year-old High Court and a plan to convert the city’s imposing old police headquarters into a Chinese-owned hotel.
The Myanmar Lawyers’ Network said it is searching for legal means to nullify the sale of both buildings, which were auctioned off by the previous military government that ceded power in 2011.
The calls for preservation come amid sweeping changes in Burma, officially known as Myanmar, which has been described as a country frozen in time during the 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 British colonial-era Police Commissioner’s Office is a sprawling two-story structure that takes up a square block down the street from the famed Strand Hotel. In recent years it served as a court complex and is filled with courtrooms, judges’ chambers and other legal offices.
Renovation started recently and a fence went up around the building, prompting lawyers to band together in an effort to save it, said Aung Thein, a member of the lawyers’ network.
“A Chinese company is going to turn the old Police Commissioner’s Office into a hotel,” Aung Thein said. “We have to stop this before it goes any further. The network will find all legal means to stop this privatization deal.”
The lawyers are threatening to stage protests after getting no response to letters sent last month to President Thein Sein and the speakers of parliament to halt the privatization, he said. In the letters they called for the preservation of both buildings, which have been designated heritage sites. They cited a 1988 preservation law that carries a five-year prison term for anyone who makes structural changes to landmark buildings.
The lawyers also oppose the sale of the former High Court building to a developer who hopes to convert the clock-towered structure built in 1911 into a museum and restaurant.
The red-brick High Court, located across from Sule Pagoda at one of the city’s main traffic circles, operates as a regional court and is no longer the country’s Supreme Court, which was moved to Naypyidaw after the military regime shifted the capital there in 2005.
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 there is fear that some will deteriorate beyond repair or be bought and demolished by developers.