Forum Calls for Prioritizing Rangoon’s Heritage

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 19 January 2015

RANGOON — An international conference to provide policy recommendations on the future of Rangoon has called for government coordination to realize the economic, social and physical benefits from heritage conservation in Burma’s largest city.

Calling the social diversity of Rangoon “a rich basic for high-quality tourism products that incorporate more than a major site,” international and local participants at the conference in Rangoon said Burma’s business hub has a window of opportunity to capitalize on international interest, adding that the city’s sustainable revitalization could attract visitors and investors.

“Given all these opportunities, Yangon [Rangoon] could serve as a model not only for Myanmar but cities around the region and across the globe,” said Erica Avrami of the World Monuments Fund, which co-hosted “Building the Future: The Role of Heritage in the Sustainable Development of Yangon Forum,” along with the Yangon Heritage Trust.

While summarizing the issues discussed during the three-day conference, Avrami said on Saturday that there was also a limited institutional framework to facilitate heritage research and activities, with only a handful of NGOs, universities and other organizations doing the work, as well as limited government mandates.

“This interest in heritage has not yet translated into government policy, and there is a lack of coordination among the relevant government agencies and urban heritage-related issues,” said Avrami, an assistant professor of historic preservation at Columbia University in New York and former director of research and education at the World Monuments Fund who continues to work with the organization.

“There is a lack of enforcement in environmental regulations, an absence of guidelines for building safety, zoning, land use and heritage conservation, and other key elements like urban design and planning,” she added.

The forum released five priority areas intended to protect heritage, manage heritage processes and promote heritage investment in the short term, including official recognition of a downtown conservation area and zoning plan, and facilitation of conservation and heritage investment as well as development of downtown infrastructure, especially projects aimed at enhancing walkability, the city’s waterfront and open spaces.

Soe Thane, a Union minister from the President’s Office, said at the forum’s closing session that he would urge the Rangoon divisional government and the city’s mayor to finalize a conservation area and zoning plan, which has been in the draft stage and awaiting official approval for more than one year.

“Regarding the legal aspects, this is the purview of professional people—YCDC [Yangon City Development Committee] and the Yangon government should be the task force. There is no need to involve the central government,” he said.

“I will talk to Yangon’s Chief Minister U Myint Swe and Mayor U Hla Myint to finalize it [the zoning plan],” the senior minister added. “You need to legalize it for the future, for the next government of Yangon. This I will explain to them. I also care about Yangon. I know this city. I know its problem.”

Last year, Rangoon’s historical city center—an eclectic mix of moldering British colonial architecture, bustling street life and shrines to all the world’s major religions—was included on the World Monuments Fund’s “Watch” list, indicating that its heritage was “at risk from the forces of nature and the impact of social, political, and economic change.”

The listing called attention to the city’s unique cultural inheritance, which the organization said was under threat as development has proceeded at a breakneck pace with Burma’s opening up to the wider world in 2011.

“A weak regulatory framework, limited professional planning expertise, and mounting pressures for development render historic Yangon vulnerable to hasty decisions with potentially permanent effects,” said a statement from the forum’s cohosts ahead of the event.

Thant Myint-U, the founder of the Yangon Heritage Trust, told The Irrawaddy that international and Burmese experts attending the forum all agreed on the urgent need to integrate conservation into Rangoon’s urban planning.

“What we need now is to reach out both to the general public, the government and especially to the business community, and find a way forward that is acceptable to everyone,” he said.

“It’s critical to understand that what we want is not for Yangon to stay the way it is, or to hold back development, but to integrate the best of what we have, our heritage, into a vision of a modern 21st century city.”