Yangon's Colonial Heritage Under Threat

Despite the efforts of a wide range of international and local supporters seeking to save them, the irreplaceable colonial buildings that make up much of the center of Rangoon appear to be facing increasing threat.

Two colonial buildings in Burma’s former capital – also known as Yangon -- the 101-year-old High Court and the Police Commissioner’s Office, are up for sale to a consortium of Chinese and local developers despite the imposition in June of a 50-year moratorium on the demolition of buildings older than 50 years.

Asia Sentinel reported in March that the stock of colonial buildings, the most extensive in Asia, were under growng threat as Burma, also known as Myanmar, opens to development after 60 years in isolation. There are 189 listed buildings and 11 ancient monuments, according to the Yangon Heritage Trust. Most suffer from long neglect that started when the British left the country in 1948. Many are in danger of demolition because they are so much in need of repair. The trust has compiled another list of another 2,500 significant buildings in deteriorating condition that require protection, a bigger stock of architecturally significant buildings that exist anywhere in Asia.

According to the Heritage trust, the 189 include the old offices of Hong Kong-Shanghai Bank, Lloyds, Standard and Charted, Thomas Cook, Irrawaddy Flotilla Company, Bombay Burma Trading Company as well as the Strand Hotel itself, which has been restored into an expensive boutique hostelry.

Other buildings included the badly deteriorated all-teak Pegu Club—where Rudyard Kipling spent the night before writing “Mandalay”—and the grand red-brick Secretariat, with its Venetian towers and elegant porticos.

Already in disrepair from decades of neglect, the government-owned buildings fell into even worse shape when the junta that formerly controlled the country built an entirely new capital five hours north of Yangon in Naypyidaw and left in 2005. Now, abandoned and rotting, they are subject to the tropical climate and voracious termites.

The new liberalization has resulted in skyrocketing real estate prices and rents in Yangon, with demand for flats, supermarkets and malls putting pressure on the privately owned colonial residences that today occupy large blocks of land within the central business district. Many have already come down, to be replaced by quickly-erected apartment blocks.

The two-story Police Commissioner’s Office itself covers an entire block near the Strand near the w2aterfront. The developers say they intend to turn it into a hotel. Another developer intends to convert the magnificent red-brick clock-towered Secretariat, which was erected in 1911, into a museum and restaurant.

However, a local lawyers’ association called the Myanmar Lawyers Network said they would seek permission to hold a demonstration early next week to protest the sale of the two buildings. They were auctioned off by the junta in 2011 when the government moved north, and presumably prior to the passage of the moratorium that was announced in June.

“We have requested a halt to the privatization [of the buildings] and presented solid evidence three times to the president and speakers of both Houses of Parliament,” Kyee Myint, one of the Network members, told the Chiang Maiu-based Irrawaddy Magazine. “However, we have had no response from them, so we are going to take to the streets.”

Both buildings, Kyee Myint said, have long played important roles in the country’s judiciary system. The two both appear on the city’s National Heritage List. However, when the military regime moved the capital to Naypyidaw in 2005, the High Court was downgraded to Rangoon Divisional Court while the Police Commissioner Office became a township court and legal offices. The township court was relocated in May this year and the building was abandoned. A fence was erected around the edifice while it waits the renovation project that will convert it into a hotel.

“It would be such a shame for these buildings to be turned into a hotel and museum,” Kyee Myint added. “We want them to remain as they are.”

“We simply want to preserve our national heritage. It’s questionable whether handing over national heritage sites to the private sector is lawful,” said Ko Ni, another lawyer from Myanmar Lawyers Network.

He said next week’s protest would involve about 100 lawyers, but that they would not chant slogans for fear that they would be arrested for causing public disorder.

The call for the preservation of British colonial buildings comes amid sweeping changes in Burma, officially known as Myanmar, which has been described as a country frozen in time during its half-century of military rule. One of the only cities in Asia with its colonial heritage still intact, Burma is becoming a magnet for economic development as it opens to the outside world.

(With reporting from Irrawaddy)