Colonial Communications Hub Linked Myanmar with Outside World
By Wei Yan Aung 19 May 2020
Yangon — One of the places that connected Myanmar (then Burma) to the rest of the world during the colonial period was the Central Telegraph Office in Yangon (then Rangoon). Telegraph was first used in colonized Lower Myanmar in 1854. King Mindon, the ruler of then sovereign Upper Myanmar, also introduced telegraph and could send messages to India. After the entire country fell under colonial rule, a telegraph office controlled communications.
The first telegraph office was opened on Strand Road and the construction of the current building at the corner of Maha Bandula Street and Pansodan Street began in 1913.
Its architect was John Begg, a consulting architect to the government of India, who also designed Customs House on Strand Road and the Printing and Publishing Enterprise opposite the Secretariat. The Central Telegraph Office was Begg’s third and last architectural work in the city. The contractors were Clark and Greig.
The building was designed as a four-story, steel-framed building with brick walls between stanchions placed at six-meter intervals. During early excavation work, the contractor discovered that part of the plot was severely waterlogged and innovative solutions were found to the problem, according to 30 Heritage Buildings of Yangon, published by the Association of Myanmar Architects in 2013.
Piles 23cm in diameter were sunk in the swampy ground and filled with sand. The sand was stirred for days until it became firm and dry. The entire site was then leveled with more sand and covered with 6cm of fine cement.
Construction took around five years and was completed in 1917.
Y.E. Modan Bros gun house was opposite, T.E. Jumal Silk and Carpet Store was diagonally opposite and the High Court next door, with Rowe and Co. department store, City Hall, Sule Pagoda and Queen’s Park (now Maha Bandula Park) within walking distance.
The red building played a key information role in the colonial government. Apart from grandeur, its facade offers numerous recessed windows, providing daylight and ventilation.
In 1939, the building took on an additional role of providing information and entertainment by housing the Burma State Broadcasting Service on its ground floor. During World War II, it was a key communications hub for the military and helped to spread propaganda.
After occupying the city, the Japanese ordered residents to bring radios to the Telegraph Office to be converted so that they were unable to receive Allied broadcasts from India.
Citizens who understood Japanese worked at the office during the occupation and the indigenous population played a growing role at the building after the war.
The office sent messages about General Aung San’s trip to London to sign the independence agreement with British Prime Minister Clement Attlee. It also spread details of the Panglong Conference in which Gen. Aung San and leaders from several ethnic groups agreed to form a single state after independence from the British.
In the 1950s, after independence, it was still the only building handling foreign cables, with about 96,000 outgoing and 87,000 incoming messages per year. The Telegraph Office continued to provide a link to the outside world under military rule and as recently as early this century it was still favored by city residents for its reliable domestic telephone lines and international fax services.
Despite being 103 years old, its remains solid and has adapted well in the age of IT. A huge antenna tower on the building, however, is visually incongruous.
Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko
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