Reprieve Possible for Yangon’s Colonial Gems

Frozen in time by decades of shambolic economic mismanagement and an economy closed to international investment, the city of Yangon in Myanmar has a collection of some of the finest colonial buildings in Asia because of British rule, which lasted from 1824 to 1948.

The subsequent Burmese Way to Socialism impoverished the country and immobilized development. That has left hundreds of buildings, many of them as dilapidated as the famed American cars in Cuba. They are now in danger as the world rushes into Myanmar to invest.

“Just two years ago, solid century-old buildings – plastered with red Yangon City Development Committee signs declaring them “dangerous” and ripe for destruction – were coming down at a rapid rate,” according to the Yangon Heritage Trust. “In the final months of 2013, however, the efforts of those leading the fight to preserve Yangon’s historic neighborhoods appear to have taken hold. Regional and municipal authorities have intervened on a number of occasions to halt the demolition of historic buildings or projects out of step with their surroundings while a new zoning plan was unveiled.”

The government has now released two heritage protection bills that would help better protect heritage buildings and objects, an official said, a move that was welcomed by lawmakers and heritage protection advocates.

The bills are the Protection and Conservation of Ancient Buildings Bill and Protection and Conservation of Antiquities Bill, for public review. Kyaw Oo Lwin, director general of the Culture Ministry’s archaeology and national museums department, said the bills had been created after the 1957 Antiquities Act was modified and separated in two bills in order to improve legal protection for heritage structures and heritage objects.

“[W]ith some modifications, including on the interpretation of the law and penalties, we have separated [the Antiquities Act] into two drafts to make them more clear and comprehensive,” he told The Irrawaddy.

“Now we have a more comprehensive and modernized draft for conservation purposes, as what we have now is sort of outdated,” he said, adding that the Culture Ministry had studied examples of heritage protection laws in other Southeast Asian countries during the drafting process.

The bills would protect “more than 100-year-old buildings and antiquities across the country—either above or below the ground and water—that have historic, cultural, artistic, antique and archaeological values.”

Kyaw Oo Lwin said the bills would expand the definition of old buildings and objects in need of protection. In the case of buildings, for example, the 1957 Antiquities Act originally only offered legal protection for structures made before 1886.

Penalties for damaging, removing or destroying heritage buildings and objects would be tougher than under the 1957 act, which includes prison terms of between six months to three years.

The Protection and Conservation of Antiquities Bill states that anyone who attempt to bring or transport “antiquities” overseas without permission, or who destroys or collects them for business purposes, could face a five to 10-year prison sentence, as well as fines.

The Protection and Conservation of Ancient Buildings Bill says anyone who destroys or damages protected buildings could face prison terms of between one to seven years, while unauthorized use of photos or videos of historic buildings for business purposes could be punished.

Apart from the Antiquities Act, Burma currently has the 1998 Protection and Preservation of Cultural Heritage Regions Law. The latter was mostly designed for ancient monumental sites, such as those found at Bagan, and offers limited protection for individual buildings across the country.

An opposition lawmaker and a heritage protection advocate in an initial reaction welcomed the bills.

“It would be good for the people and country if the bills come into law as soon as possible. But make no mistake, we would still need to implement [the law] effectively,” said Moe Moe Lwin, director of the Yangon Heritage Trust (YHT).

Nyo Nyo Thin, an independent Rangoon Division parliamentarian, said the two heritage bills were a step in the right direction, although she added that Rangoon’s historic center in particular needed to better protected through the creation of local heritage management policies.

“We still need special provisions for some individual regions. For example, like in Rangoon where there are many old colonial buildings. So, I think, we need specific regulations on which area is protected for heritage conservation and which buildings are scheduled for protection,” she said.

YHT and other groups have been advocating for protective measures for Rangoon’s historic downtown area, where there are hundreds of colonial-era buildings that are threatened by decades of neglect and rapid real estate development.

In the past two years, the YHT and a group of concerned local architects and urban planners have proposed two draft urban heritage management policies to the Rangoon Division government in order to improve protection for the city’s heritage. The division government has, however, not responded to the proposals.

A version of this appeared in The Irrawaddy, with which Asia Sentinel has a content-sharing agreement.