There’s always a tension between “progress” and the past and Yangon is caught right in the middle of that argument. After decades of being virtually closed to the outside world there’s a pressing demand to address the dilapidated state of the built environment. But what should the priorities be in a country with so many urgent needs for its people?
Increasingly the world’s media outlets have been focusing attention on the dire condition of the architecture that gave colonial-era Rangoon such a reputation for tropical Asian charm. Those to have covered the story in recent times include the New York Times, Britain’s Telegraph, the Sydney Morning Herald, CNN, the Wall Street Journal, Time Magazine, SBS and the Australian Financial Review, to name a few. What has added pressure to demands for action is the exodus since 2005 of government officials from Rangoon to the new capital Naypyidaw. This has left many of the buildings abandoned to squatters and decay, with family washing flapping in the wind from graceful old windows, marbled floors and columns covered in grime and richly tessellated floors chipped and neglected.
Structure is developing in the rescue campaign. In 2012 the Yangon Heritage Trust was set up under the direction of historian and author Thant Myint-U, grandson of former United Nations secretary-general U Thant. International experts in restoration, including some from Australia, are helping in the salvage operation. Another possible saviour could be UNESCO World Heritage listing. To date Myanmar has no listed sites – thanks more to its generals’ testy past relationships than lack of suitable candidates – but Rangoon’s old colonial buildings have been suggested as potential contenders. There’s also a strong push by the local people to ensure developers don’t throw the baby out with a bathwater in the gentrification process. We were told that in the case of the old Railway Building restoration project into a luxury hotel that strong local protests were voiced when it appeared the international developers were overstepping the mark. Happily we saw a number of buildings wearing scaffolding and other accoutrements of restoration.
I first became aware of the plight of Rangoon’s colonial heritage last year at a photographic exhibition at the Brisbane Powerhouse – Yangon a City to Rescue, by Moroccan-born Jaques Maundy, who lives on the Sunshine Coast, and Italian Jimi Casaccia. If only there had been such an international spotlight on Brisbane in the ’70s when so many of our colonial heritage treasures disappeared in the middle of the night. If that had been the case we may still have the grand old Bellevue Hotel as part of a charming Parliamentary House precinct at the Botanic Gardens end of George Street.