Lawyers Protest Colonial Buildings' Privatization

By Hpyo Wai Tha 4 October 2012

RANGOON—After their appeals to the government to preserve two colonial buildings fell on deaf ears, lawyers in Burma’s former capital are preparing to stage a protest to bring attention to their demands.

The Myanmar Lawyers Network said it is now seeking permission to hold a demonstration early next week to protest the sale of the 101-year-old High Court and the Police Commissioner Office in downtown Rangoon to a consortium of local and Chinese businessmen.

The Myanmar Lawyers Network said it had previously cited a 1988 preservation law that carries a five-year prison term for anyone who makes structural changes to landmark buildings as a legal means to nullify the sale of the buildings, which were auctioned off by the previous military government that ceded power in 2011.

“We have requested a halt to the privatization [of the buildings] and presented solid evidence three times to the president and speakers of both Houses of Parliament,” said Kyee Myint, one of the Network members. “However, we have had no response from them, so we are going to take to the streets.”

He explained that both buildings have long played important roles in the country’s judiciary system. However, when the military regime moved the capital to Naypyidaw in 2005, the High Court was downgraded to Rangoon Divisional Court while the Police Commissioner Office became a township court and legal offices. The township court was relocated in May this year and the building was abandoned. A fence was erected around the edifice while it waits the renovation project that will convert it into a hotel.

“It would be such a shame for these buildings to be turned into a hotel and museum,” Kyee Myint added. “We want them to remain as they are.”

Another reason to stop the move is that both buildings appear on the city’s National Heritage List, he said.

“We simply want to preserve our national heritage. It’s questionable whether handing over national heritage sites to the private sector is lawful,” said Ko Ni, another lawyer from Myanmar Lawyers Network.

He said next week’s protest would involve about 100 lawyers, but that they would not chant slogans for fear that they would be arrested for causing public disorder.

The call for the preservation of British colonial buildings comes amid sweeping changes in Burma, officially known as Myanmar, which has been described as a country frozen in time during its 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 colonial-era Police Commissioner’s Office is a sprawling two-story structure that takes up a square block close to the famed Strand Hotel. In recent years it served as a court complex and is replete with courtrooms, judges’ chambers and other legal offices.

“A Chinese company is going to turn the old Police Commissioner’s Office into a hotel,” lawyer Aung Thein said. “We have to stop this before it goes any further. The Network will exhaust all legal means to stop this privatization deal.”

The lawyers also oppose the sale of the former High Court building to a developer who hopes to convert the red-brick clock-towered structure built in 1911 into a museum and restaurant.

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 many conservationists fear that some will deteriorate beyond repair or be bought and demolished by developers.