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The Wild East

As an untempered development boom surges in Yangon, an uncertain fate is placed on the architectural icons of Old Rangoon.

I

n 2011, the enigmatic country of Myanmar, once isolated country under nearly six decades of violent military rule, installed a quasi-civilian government bent on its reformation and integration into the world. Soon after, the U.S. and EU eased fifteen years of sanctions, thrusting the country into a surging real estate development boom with aggressive players from both the West and the East. Corporate offices began quickly outpacing new residential and hotel properties, with even the most astute developers and urban planners puzzled on how to best calibrate the developments in the absence of sound regulations.

During the military rule, citizens endured a dark age that saw streets lined with child soldiers and myriad human rights violations; political opponents and journalists released from jail, then thrown back in again, but it appears now that the transition towards reformation and integration is prevailing, if still incomplete. In November 2015, the country held its first democratically held election in 25 years – the first was discounted by the military – and just three months later, the National League for Democracy led by noble laureate Aung San Suu Kyi sat as majority rulers in a country that once imprisoned her in her home for 15 years due to her calls for democracy.

For the country’s former capital of Yangon and its residents, decades in isolation and economic stagnation had brought life in the once burgeoning British-ruled port city to a complete standstill, while the military-tied elite stood as the privileged few who would mount meaningful new business.

Most in the city of over 5 million, meanwhile, had to use what they had, making homes of abandoned banks, office buildings and even within the hundreds of dilapidated structures their former colonial masters built there at the turn of the 20th century.

With the reformist government finally taking power, foreign backers began flocking to the city with hopes of pouring investment into rejuvenating one of the world’s most promising economies: a country still rich in underutilized natural resources.

Yangon was finally set to thaw, and as the stench of oppression began to fade, a shocking reality about the dwellings that once served as the pride of Southeast Asia began to emerge.

img-2The long abandoned alternative entrance to the Balthazar Building.

The sight is a common one. Heavy traffic and betel nut splattered roads surrounding once gorgeous Edwardian or Victorian architecture, now weather stained and mutated, with carefully lain bricks now carelessly kicked out to make way for makeshift plumbing.

Large rats and street dogs overrun parts of the town and the smell of open sewage is widespread, while tenants hurl their trash into the alleys.

Standing over the railing of his second floor apartment, 74-year-old U Than Win, a former Burmese naval officer, points down into the open-air courtyard of the building, now being used as a dumpster.

“Look, there is garbage everywhere,” he says. “I moved into this very old building one year and seven months ago to live with my daughter, but there is too much damage.” Win is just one of the building’s 60 or so residents that wish to see the building, known affectionately by locals as the Balthazar Building, restored to its former glory. Instead, it stands as a Relic of Rangoon.

Built by Armenian merchants in 1905, the iconic structure in downtown Yangon stands today as one of the most important examples colonial-era architecture in Myanmar. Today, it’s more significantly an example of the eastern city’s rich architectural heritage which is vanishing in the wake of the development boom.

The scale is staggering—as much as 35 percent of downtown Yangon, or about 1,800 buildings, were destroyed between 1990 and 2011 to make way for new development projects, according to the Yangon Heritage Trust (YHT). Established in 2012 by Harvard educated historian Thant Myint-U, the YHT is composed of prominent historians, architects and scholars who collectively lobby government bodies to preserve the city’s unique architectural legacy.

Since the reformist government took over in 2011, the country has experienced unprecedented growth in foreign direct investment and swelled to $9.6 billion in 2015-16, according to data released in April, up from just $329.6 million in 2009-10.

Ne Win’s government seized control of Myanmar in 1962. For most of the last six decades of autocratic rule, Yangon’s heritage buildings have been left to spoil and the Balthazar Building is no exception. An Edwardian red-brick façade, Italian marble art-deco tiles and intricate iron rails leading up the three floors of the building hint romantically at the prosperous past of the Balthazar Trading Company, but these glamorous architectural features are now covered with mold and cobwebs, its walls dilapidated. The enchanting birdcage elevator that rests on the ground floor has been defunct for nearly 40 years.

img-3To the left is downtown Yangon’s historic City Hall and to the right is the Sule Pagoda.

Most of Yangon’s colonial architecture was built in the 19th and early 20th centuries when the city, formerly known as Rangoon, was a major trade hub for the region and as such served as a major source of income for the ethnic Indians that inhabited it at the time. Downtown Yangon contains a wealth of heritage buildings including ancient Buddhist pagodas and monasteries, churches of various denominations, over a dozen mosques, a Hindu temple, a Jewish synagogue and the country’s only Armenian church.

In fact, Rangoon was in the early 20th century the second biggest port in the world behind New York.

So well-known and fascinating was old Rangoon that it drew the likes of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, who lived there as an honorary consul of Chile in 1927, and English writer and poet Rudyard Kipling.

According to conservationists, city officials are at a pivotal crossroads, where they can opt to showcase its heritage as an aspect of its attraction to the tourist trade, much like Malaysia’s Penang has, but will face relentless pressures and obstacles marked by new developments.

“It was a major center of international exchange. Famous writers and famous people lived here and wrote about it and so it has a legacy that is completely unique,” says Bonnie Burnham, president of the World Monument Fund. The WMF, which has been advocating for at-risk landmarks over the last half century, added downtown Yangon to their prestigious World Monument Watch list in 2014.

“I also think in 40 or 50 years if that’s successful, Yangon will be the Charleston or the Boston of the Orient in terms of having utilized its history as part of its vision for itself in the future,” says Burnham.

With the downtown cityscape consisting mainly of inhabited older buildings in poor repair, the issue for the government has become striking a balance between preserving the city’s heritage and promoting modernization, says U Toe Aung, director of the urban planning division of the municipal Yangon City Development Committee. “Both of these have to be harmonized.”

Win Khaing, president of the Myanmar Engineering Society and vice-chairman of the Myanmar Engineering Council, says that while conserving Yangon’s past is essential, it also has dire infrastructure needs that includes providing adequate housing for its 5 million inhabitants.

“In terms of infrastructure, we are below par. We need a lot. What we have now is nothing,” says Khaing.

Many of the new projects slated to reinvent Yangon as a modern commercial town are being built on the cheap and without guidelines, endangering the neighboring historical sites and residents in the process. In particular, the area around the 2000 year old Shwedagon Pagoda is widely considered holy land that is supposed to remain free free of new development. Yet what constitutes this land is vague and large projects jutting up into the skyline overnight.

“We can still see improper developments going on and some of it is quite threatening, especially near Shwedagon [Pagoda]” says Daw Moe Moe Lwin, director of the YHT. “Unless you really care about the issue, or have insight about its potential impacts before you notice the damage happening, it could become irreversible.”

According to Lwin, only 189 buildings throughout all of Yangon are protected by the municipal government’s regulatory body, the Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC), while urban planners do not have a concrete definition of what a heritage site is.

Add to that, there are other challenges to the preservation of Yangon’s heritage, as confusing leasing agreements bury revitalization plans of well-known public buildings in red tape, and confused ownership rules around private property prevent signatories from investing in the upkeep of their buildings.

Another issue, according to Rupert Mann, senior program officer at YHT, is that land owners will often intentionally allow for buildings to become dilapidated with the hopes of gaining government approval to partner with developers to demolish it and build more profitable structures.

img-3A resident of the Balthazar Building looks down the elevator shaft of the building from the top floor.

“As a result,” says Mann, “the land owner 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. Meanwhile, the tenants are sitting in there. They are unable to pay for a new roof, or upgrade the façade or even fix broken utilities or stairs.”

While the most trafficked city in Myanmar, only an estimated average of 250,000 visitors pass through per year. This is in part due to its isolation, but equally due to its modest hotel infrastructure, another side effect of years of underinvestment. (Only 3000 of the 8000 hotel rooms are considered suitable for tourists.) Without the restoration of landmark properties alongside grandeur and mystique of its historic architecture to lure travelers from far flung locales to its storied cultural center, Yangon is at risk of a future identity crisis.

While the question of which new economy will emerge in the city over the next ten years is one many are trying to answer – cultural tourism, or an offshore colony of corporate offices – the answer will shape the skyline.