RANGOON — A heritage conservation group has been honored with a presidential award for their efforts to preserve century-old buildings in Rangoon, Burma’s former capital.
The Yangon Heritage Trust was honored with the 2016 President’s Excellent Performance Award along with 32 other groups “for striving to develop the country’s economy and the socio-economic life of the people,” outgoing president Thein Sein said on Tuesday.
YHT was the only NGO among the awardees. The other recipients were government-affiliated groups led by vice presidents, army chiefs, union ministers and high-level government officials, whose activities ranged from successful collection of a nationwide census to the organization of the Southeast Asian Games and November’s general election.
“This year, organizations that have made great strides in the successful realization of the government’s sweeping reform process are set to be rewarded. That’s why excellent performance awards were presented to organizations for contributing to progress made over the past five years,” President Thein Sein said during the awards ceremony in Naypyidaw.
YHT founder Thant Myint-U told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday that he thought the award shows have managed to raise the profile of conservation and urban planning in Rangoon, as “very few people were talking about [Rangoon] heritage protection even three to four years ago. Now, the issues are more well-known and recognized as important.”
“We’ve had success, and I’m grateful to supporters both inside and outside government. YHT’s board and staff have worked very hard these past few years. But we still have a long way to go,” he said.
Founded in 2012 to preserve Rangoon’s unique architectural legacy, YHT was also praised by Thein Sein in 2013 for the group’s preservation efforts. Since then, YHT has intervened to stop the demolition of pre-1960 buildings in the downtown area and campaigned to stop other new developments that might affect the city’s historic character. At the request of the government, YHT drafted a law on urban conservation in 2013 that would help protect the city’s heritage.
The presidential award came at a time when Rangoon is facing unwieldy urban development, which has prompted calls from observers to rein in urbanization projects that have gotten out of hand and to address the city’s lack of “systematic urban planning controls.”
To enforce such controls, experts have urged the president to enact the Myanmar National Building Code and Zoning Plan to ensure building safety and to regulate proper restrictions on land use and building heights for development. Both laws have existed in draft form for more than two years, likely left for the incoming government to tackle.
Thant Myint-U said the next few years will be critical and that urban planning in Rangoon is one of the top issues facing the new administration.
“What we need to do now is make a convincing case, especially an economic case, for why heritage protection must be a big part of future urban planning,” he said.