The struggle to save Yangon's architectural heritage

The Balthazar Building, Bank Street, central Yangon
Image caption The once grand Balthazar Building on Bank Street in central Yangon

Shepherding a flock of tourists through the traffic-congested streets of Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon, a local tour guide shouts over the roar of oncoming vehicles.

Here, on Bogolay Zay Street amid the moss-covered, weather-stained, early-20th Century facades in the historic centre of the city, the history of the colonial buildings that make up old Rangoon, once the capital of Burma, begins to come into focus.

To the right, the former residence of famed Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda; to the left, one can still see the signage for the Young Women's Christian Association, circa 1902.

In the distance is the city's most iconic building - The Secretariat - where General Aung San, the metaphorical father of modern Myanmar and actual father of Nobel laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, was assassinated in 1947.

"This street is highly important as a historical centre because there are only three modern buildings on it," said Aung Thurane, the 30-year-old guide.

He was explaining that preservation is a major achievement in a city where historic infrastructure has enjoyed little legislative protection.

"Hopefully, these will be safe," he said.

Heritage 'destroyed'

Other heritage buildings in the city have not been as fortunate. Developers and landowners made money building larger and newer structures, while most of the city's infrastructure went into disrepair when the military government took power in 1962.

According to the Yangon Heritage Trust (YHT), as much as 35% of downtown Yangon was destroyed between 1990 and 2011 to make way for new development projects. That's about 1,800 buildings.

Image caption The Secretariat is a key feature of Yangon's architectural heritage

Heritage 'destroyed'

With many of those projects built on the cheap, however, conservationists worry that much of the city's heritage is being destroyed for little benefit in return.

"Our vision is something that we cannot expect from everyone," said Daw Moe Moe Lwin, director of the YHT.

Currently, just 189 buildings throughout all of Yangon are protected by the municipal government, while urban planners do not even have a firm definition of what a heritage site is, she said.

While municipal and regional authorities have sought to preserve historic Yangon following the country's transition to a quasi-civilian government in 2011, lack of co-ordinated leadership on the issue has led to further, albeit fewer, demolitions, she added.

"We used to propose to the government… that there should be a task force including the stakeholders, the NGOs [non-governmental organisations], the intellectuals, as well as officials, to manage or control the assets. This hasn't happened, though," she said.

But the YHT has been called in to consult on heritage matters and has helped prevent the destruction of iconic buildings in some cases, she said.

Image caption Bigger, more profitable buildings have been replacing Yangon's older properties

Legal challenges

There are other threats to Yangon's heritage. Confusing leasing agreements bury the revitalisation plans for well-known public buildings in red tape, and opaque private property ownership rules prevent signatories from investing in the upkeep of their buildings.

"The main hurdle that we're facing here in Yangon is around legal initiative," said Rupert Mann, senior programme officer at YHT.

Landowners will often let buildings become dilapidated in the hope of gaining government approval to partner with developers and demolish them, making way for new, more profitable structures, he said.

"As a result, the landowner refuses to allow the upkeep of the building because the longer they can make the building look like it's going to fall over the more they believe that they can convince the YCDC to allow them to demolish it," he said.

"Meanwhile, the tenants are sitting in there. They are unable to pay for a new roof, or upgrade the facade, or even fix broken utilities or stairs."

Image caption A revamp is planned for Yangon's High Court, built in 1914
Image caption The dilapidated Old Pegu club, once a stylish haunt for British diplomats

Unique architecture

Yangon is seen as a unique architectural city, having served as a major trading hub for the ethnic Indians that inhabited it in the early 20th Century.

Much of the architecture in downtown Yangon dates from the period of British rule which lasted from 1824 through to the creation of Burma in 1948.

According to conservationists, city officials should showcase Yangon's heritage to increase its appeal, much like Penang and Singapore have done.

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Media captionJonah Fisher reports on the fight to preserve Yangon's colonial architecture

"It was a major centre of international exchange," said Bonnie Burnham, president of the World Monument Fund. "Famous writers and famous people lived here and wrote about it, and so it has a legacy that is completely unique.

"I also think in 40 or 50 years, if that is successful, Yangon will be… the Charleston or the Boston of the Orient in terms of having utilised its history as part of its vision for itself in the future."

With the downtown cityscape consisting mainly of inhabited older buildings in poor states of repair, the issue for the government has become striking a balance between preserving the city's heritage and promoting modernisation, said U Toe Aung of the Yangon City Development Committee.

"Both of these have to be harmonised," he said.

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