In Burma, a Legal Bid to Save Rangoon’s Old Courthouse

By Lawi Weng 23 April 2013

RANGOON—In a long-running fight to keep hotel developers away from two colonial justice buildings in Burma’s former capital, a group of activists are threatening legal action against the government.

The Myanmar Lawyers’ Network has threatened to file a lawsuit if the government does not take action to stop the renovation of Rangoon’s 101-year-old High Court building and former police headquarters, which were once labeled as heritage sites but auctioned off to developers by the previous military government.

Since the auction, part of the High Court has already been converted into condominiums. The rest of the courthouse is slated to become a museum and restaurant, while the Police Commissioner’s Office will be turned into a hotel.

The Rangoon-based Myanmar Lawyers’ Network took to the streets last year to protest the development project, and says the government’s sale of the colonial structures violated Burma’s national preservation laws.

“We’re asking the government to stop the renovation project and take action in accordance with the law on those who were responsible for auctioning off these old buildings,” Kyee Myint, a senior member of the lawyers’ group, told The Irrawaddy, reading a letter the group sent to the government last week. “If the government fails to take action against those who sold the building, our group will sue.”

In a bid to nullify the project, the Myanmar Lawyers’ Network has previously cited Burma’s 1988 preservation law, which says anyone who makes structural changes to a landmark building can be imprisoned for five years.

The lawyers’ group is calling for the prosecution of Soe Thein, a minister of the President’s Office, and Myint Swe, chief minister of Rangoon Division, for their alleged roles in the auction.

Kyee Myint said that if their demands were not met, the group would convene in 60 days to select a team of prosecutors who would file the lawsuit.

After Burma achieved independence from the British in 1948, its new government took control of the High Court and the Police Commissioner’s Office in downtown Rangoon, the country’s biggest city and former capital.

When the military regime moved the capital to Naypyidaw in 2005, the High Court was downgraded to the Rangoon Division courthouse, with space to detain prisoners awaiting trial.

The Police Commissioner’s Office was also converted, into township court and legal offices. A sprawling two-story structure near the famed Strand Hotel, the old police headquarters includes courtrooms, judges’ chambers and other legal offices. But these days, a fence has been erected around the edifice, signaling the impending construction by hotel developers.

After years of poor maintenance, the government said it could not afford to renovate the old buildings but would auction them off to companies that could hopefully preserve some of the architecture during development.

Speaking to Parliament, one lawmaker reasoned that the High Court should be converted for other uses because tourists would not want to see detained criminals in the building when they visited.

As Burma opens up after nearly half a century of military, tourism is increasing rapidly, and so too is the demand for hotels. But some activists say the old colonial justice buildings could bring more foreign income to the city if they were preserved with their original architecture as landmarks.

“These buildings are very important,” said Moe Moe Lwin, director of the Yangon Heritage Trust. “Our people appreciate the value of these buildings, and many don’t want them converted for businesses.

“They [the government] could more justifiably convert these buildings for business if they had consulted with the public first, and the process should have been more transparent.”

Rangoon is currently home to 188 protected architectural sites, but many conservationists fear that some will deteriorate beyond repair or face demolishment by developers.