Myanmar Government Blocks Project near Sacred Pagoda

In a sharp turnaround, the Myanmar government has blocked a plan already underway by international developers to redevelop 22 acres of former military land near Yangon’s spectacular Shwedagon Pagoda, one of Buddhism’s most sacred structures and Myanmar’s most revered temple, into a mixed-use residential-shopping complex.

Although Yangon has a relatively strong preservation movement, concerns have been building ever since Myanmar began to open to the outside world in 2010 – that a city whose magnificent colonial architecture had been frozen in time by disastrous economic policies, would start to lose gorgeous if rundown buildings as the developers rolled in and a newly compliant capitalist government would roll over for them.

That has happened. Pedestrian sidewalks and roadside tea shops have disappeared to widen the streets. A walking tour through the heart of the central city is evidence that many of them are in such a state of decay that they are almost irretrievable. The Heritage Trust has compiled a list of 189 neoclassical buildings including the Secretariat, the High Court and the Strand Hotel, built by the Sarkies brothers on the waterfront, which has been restored to its former glory and whose nightly rates are stratospheric.

But the threat to the Shwedagon Pagoda energized a public outcry including signature-gathering campaigns and public demonstrations as well as opposition from Buddhist nationalist groups, who have been showing their ugly side over attempts at ethnic cleansing along the Andaman coast.

“We want to see all the fences, workers and machinery from the Dagon City project leave at that time, otherwise we will protest,” Aung Myaing, one of the leaders of the movement, said at a rally on July 6. One of the monks at the rally threatened to excommunicate the government if it fails to meet the request to clear out the site.

“The decision [to block the development] demonstrates a growing commitment to conserving Yangon's unique buildings and cultural heritage for the city’s financial and social benefit,” said Thant Myint-U, a founder and chairman of the Yangon Heritage Trust, in an emailed statement to Asia Sentinel. “The protection of the Shwedagon Pagoda and its setting within green public space must be a paramount consideration in any future urban plan for the city.”

Myint-U called for a coordinated approach to the entire historic city, including not just the magnificent Shwedagon area but the historic downtown, the War Office compound, issues of traffic and transport, the railways station and the waterfront. “All these things should be considered together, not separately,” he said. “We welcome international and local investment in Yangon’s regeneration and modernization within a proper framework, one that will stand the test of time and conserve the city's uniqueness."

Work had already begun on Dagon City 1, as the development on the military property was to be called, which was to be built by Marga Group, an international syndicate of investors from Hong Kong, China, Australia, the UK, Thailand and the Middle East. The 22-acre project was one of five to be scattered across Yangon on 72 acres of different sites. It was designed as a mixed-use project including eight-story residential towers, branded retail shops – think Prada, Louis Vuitton, Gucci – as well as a five-star hotel “conceived as a harmonious integration of nature and urban living.”

But it is questionable if an “integration of nature and urban living was necessary near the Shwedagon Pagoda, one of the world’s most precious heritage sites. Built sometime between the 6th and 10th centuries, it towers 99 meters above the city, covered with glistening gold leaf and dominating the skyline. Eight-story residence towers nearby were not something anyone would look forward to.

They would have blended in with too much of what has happened to the city since Myanmar opened to the west -- glass curtain-wall high-rises replacing the mix of colonial and government structures that had stood for the past 100 years, locked in by lack of progress.

"We have enough left that Yangon can still be a very special and unique city," Myint-U told AFP last year. “But the fear is also that in five years' time Yangon could look like any other Asian city with skyscrapers and traffic jams and not much else to distinguish it."