Sunday, August 20, 2017

A turning point for Yangon’s heritage

 

For years now, Yangon’s old buildings with rich backgrounds have languished without the money or the will to let them shine.

Gandhi Hall is one of Yangon’s heritage buildings that was at risk of demolition, until local groups petitioned YCDC to preserve it. Photo: Ko TaikGandhi Hall is one of Yangon’s heritage buildings that was at risk of demolition, until local groups petitioned YCDC to preserve it. Photo: Ko Taik

The city is fortunate to be left with buildings dating from the British era, including department stores, colonial offices and banks. Yet their post-World War II history has been tumultuous, and experts are pushing for action, unless they disappear entirely.

The government during the General Ne Win regime nationalised many companies and institutions, and repurposed their buildings to house various ministries.

Though they were in use for most of the second half of the 20th century, they were often not well maintained. When the government offices surreptitiously packed up for Nay Pyi Taw in 2005, many of these beautiful old buildings were abandoned – lonely and silent, but their former grandeur did not fade.

Yet not all survived subsequent development. Some heritage buildings were demolished for modern high-rises and new structures, as Yangon land prices began to boom and housing demand continued to grow.

Yangon Heritage Trust president U Thant Myint-U said over the last few years alone, perhaps five or ten buildings have been lost.

Still, sentiment that historic sites are worth preserving is picking up among the public. However, so far there are few formal rules enforcing heritage preservation, but rather conservation relying on popular opinion and support by NGOs.

The Yangon City Development Committee did officially register 189 heritage buildings in 1996. Later in 2012 it announced it would control the extension, demolishing, renovating and conservation of heritage buildings without their permit.

Although many support heritage preservation, it faces practical challenges on the ground. For instance, the 100-old-year old Gandhi Hall was threatened to be demolished by its trustees and turned into a shopping mall and apartments. An official from YCDC’s Building Department said the current mayor decided to halt the project after a public outcry, though the decision could eventually be reversed by a new mayor.