Urban Planners Urge Change of Direction on Rangoon ‘New City’

By Tin Htet Paing 12 May 2016

RANGOON — Urban planners in Rangoon are arguing for the commercial capital’s expansion to be focused on meeting the needs of the people, rather than enriching real estate developers, according to interviews with The Irrawaddy.

According to Toe Aung, director of urban planning at the Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC), the municipal body is encouraging development of Rangoon’s northeast sector.

The northeastern area covers more than 17,000 acres, has a low population and would not require a new bridge to transport construction materials and equipment, said Toe Aung. This would make its development less complicated than in the southwest area, which is separated from the rest of the city by the Hlaing River.

“There also would be fewer complications due to land confiscations [in the northeast] because the majority of the land there is owned by the government,” Toe Aung told The Irrawaddy.

Outside of the city’s core, Greater Rangoon was split into seven zones—Northeast, Southwest, Thanlyin Township, Dala Township, Htantabin Township, Hmawbi Township and Hlegu Township—in a plan for the city put forward by the Japan International Cooperation Agency. In 2013, the Japanese organization released a city plan and predicted Rangoon’s population would balloon to 10 million by 2040, and recommended to the Rangoon Division legislature that the northeast zone be developed first.

A Rangoon-based urban planning expert, Than Moe, told The Irrawaddy that the government should prioritize areas that are close to job and education opportunities, and their top concern should be the welfare of residents, not the profits of real estate developers.

“The government should not let developers plan projects for the city expansion,” he said. “The government has to take the lead when it comes to urban planning and policy-making. Then it could open bids to developers, who would help them realize [the government’s] goals.”

Developing the southwest sector, a top priority for the previous government, was not a suitable choice for the initial city expansion, said Than Moe.

“We have to think about water and electricity supply issues before deciding to develop a new part of the city,” he said.

For the past two years, development of the southwest has been shrouded in controversy extending beyond the concerns over infrastructure.

In 2014, Myanmar Say Ta Nar Myothit won the exclusive contract to develop the area. The company was run by two Chinese businessmen, known as Xiao Feng and Xiao Sen, who had close ties to then-Rangoon Chief Minister Myint Swe. The shadowy tender generated public outcry due to its lack of transparency, and the city decided to suspend the project in June 2014.

In January this year, a new tender was offered, and three companies won with a US$8 billion bid: Yangon South West Development Company, Shwe Popa Internationational Construction Company, a subsidiary of conglomerate Shwe Thanlyin, and Business Capital City Development, a company run by prominent developer Maung Weik. Yangon South West Development Company is run by the two Chinese businessmen who had won the first tender.

No progress has been made on the development since the project was awarded in January.

YCDC’s Toe Aung said the project should be put on hold until bridges and other infrastructure can be built.

“Without proper transportation infrastructure, it would be more costly for developers and everything would become more expensive than it should be for the future residents of the area,” he said.

“The request for tenders was premature,” he said. “At the time, [YCDC] had only completed a conceptual plan and hadn’t done any detailed surveys of the area. Rushing a project like this would only be of benefit to developers, not the people.”

Kyaw Latt, an urban planning expert and an advisor to YCDC, wrote in the April 21 issue of the state-run daily, The Mirror, that the government should enact a proper urban planning law that would govern the behavior of developers and regulate the compensation of property used for building.

“Developers investing in projects for their own benefit at the exclusion of important buildings like public schools, hospitals and markets are a big obstacle to healthy urban development,” he wrote.

In an interview with The Irrawaddy last month, Rangoon’s new chief minister, Phyo Min Thein, pledged to review all controversial city projects and prioritize the public good over corporate interests.