Rangoon’s Tourism Boom Risks Heritage

By William Boot 14 November 2012

If the 34-storey Diamond Inya Palace looks like being the first skyscraper to rise over Rangoon, it is unlikely to be the last. But is Burma about to ruin Asia’s last characterful city in the race to modernize?

Burma’s biggest earner right now, after gas exports, is tourism. Visitors are flocking to Rangoon and Mandalay and other places because they have not yet been spoiled by the concrete jungles that have grown over most other Asian cities.

“There’s nowhere in Asia like [Rangoon] any more, a cityscape studded with hundreds of grand and humble buildings from the colonial era amid multi-ethnic communities that have remained intact, vibrant and colorful for a century and more,” veteran regional journalist Denis Gray wrote recently after a visit.

“[It’s] been bypassed by the rapid modernization that has bulldozed the past in virtually every other Asian metropolis,” said Gray, an American who has spent more than 30 years in Asia reporting for The Associated Press.

That’s a view shared by the Association of Myanmar Architects, the Yangon [Rangoon] Heritage Trust and other concerned groups. They are all campaigning to save the city’s unique colonial-era architecture from being demolished or despoiled as money and modernity enter Burma after 50 years of isolation.

But in a city short of modern homes and hotel accommodation the value of real estate is rocketing, pitting the preservationists against Burmese and foreign speculators and developers.

Between January and September this year residential property prices rose 39 percent, office rents surged 50 percent and hotels room rates rocketed 65 percent—the biggest increase worldwide—according to the Silk Road Yangon Property Index. One square-foot of residential property costs US $85 ($900 per square-meter), says the index, which was established by the investment bank Silk Road Finance and specializes in “frontier markets.”

Available office space in Rangoon in mid-October was less than one percent of that in Bangkok, said Silk Road.

“Speculators have raced into its property market, real estate prices have soared and foreign investors are hunting for office and factory space,” said a survey by Reuters news agency.

Mandalay Golden Wings Construction, a domestic firm, has declined to disclose how much it paid at a secret government auction for the site of an old Ministry of Industry factory on which it plans to build its 34-storey block of 400 apartments. Six of the storeys will be for car garaging.

The development, which the company says is to cost $60 million, will tower over Rangoon’s pretty Inya Lake.

Conservationists fear that pressure for growth and a less than transparent administrative system will put grand and dilapidated architecture, much of it in prime downtown locations, in jeopardy.

“Many investors … view the low-lying structures as an impediment to their plans for soaring apartment blocks and office towers,” the vice-chairman of the Association of Myanmar Architects Sun Oo told Time Magazine. “I feel we are a few steps behind the developers.”

Rangoon has around 200 protected buildings. Another 2,500 “significant buildings” in deteriorating condition are deemed as in need of protection from demolition on a Yangon Heritage Trust-compiled list.

“Hundreds [of] old buildings may well be demolished over the coming year or two unless action is taken immediately,” said renowned historian Thant Myint-U, chairman of the Yangon Heritage Trust. “Yangon may soon meet the fate of other Asian cities that realized too late the heritage they had lost.”

The conservationists point to Bangkok, once dubbed the Venice of the South for its network of canals that have since virtually disappeared. Practically all its traditional architecture has been swept away and replaced by forests of concrete. Piecemeal, speculative development with little or no overall planning strategy has left the Thai capital congested with people and traffic, and increasingly expensive to live in.

Many of Rangoon’s finest colonial-era buildings have been abandoned and boarded up since the government relocated all its ministries and other administrative departments to the new capital of Naypyidaw, making them more susceptible to speculators.

The author of “30 Heritage Buildings of Yangon: Inside the City that Captured Time,” Sarah Rooney of Bangkok, thinks only a few can be converted into public use venues such as museums and art galleries. The rest face an uncertain future unless they are incorporated into new developments.

“The challenge is how to repurpose these buildings in a way that is financially viable while at the same time respectful of their architectural structure and heritage status,” she told The Bangkok Post.

Rangoon’s former High Court and a smaller sister court building have just been contracted out on long-term leases, again in secretive deals between businesses and government departments which gave no one opportunity to object.

The 101-year-old red and yellow-brick High Court with its distinctive clock tower is destined to become a museum and restaurant. A smaller court building will be converted into a hotel. These seem like reasonable fates, although lawyers are angry that their appeals for them to remain as functioning courts were ignored.

On the other hand, the 1920s-era Prome Court faces a less happy future. Developers who bought it plan to absorb it in a multi-storey condominium.