“Premium life for your dream,” announces a billboard beneath a new tower of serviced apartments in the heaving, traffic-choked city of Yangon. “Play in infinite luxury,” says another featuring a couple lolling in a pool on their balcony, with a badly photoshopped pagoda twinkling in the background.
Along with the arrival of democracy and the first civilian government since 1962, Myanmar is also embracing the novelty of unbridled speculative development. Six months on from the election that swept the Nobel prize-winning campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi’s party to power, the skyline of Yangon is bristling with cranes and concrete frames as a clutch of new towers rises above the mouldering rooftops of the old colonial centre.
With the city’s population set to double to 10 million over the next two decades, flocks of foreign investors are circling, eager to reap the spoils of Asia’s “final frontier market”. The fragile historic fabric, along with the people it houses, has never been under such pressure.
“With every new building bidding for the best view of the Shwedagon Pagoda, we’re not going to have any views left,” says Daw Moe Moe Lwin, director of the Yangon Heritage Trust (YHT), a campaign group founded in 2012 by architects and historians keen to save south-east Asia’s last surviving colonial core.
It has been an uphill battle in a place that still doesn’t have a formalised planning system, and where many public buildings have been swiftly privatised in deals that allowed the generals of the outgoing dictatorship to fill their pockets in the process.
Walk in any direction from the trust’s HQ on Pansodan Street, and it’s easy to see why Lwin is so concerned about the future of her city. Downtown Yangon is an enchanting, open-air museum of faded colonial grandeur – as lovingly documented in a recent architectural guidebook to the city – but looks like it might collapse at any minute.
A few doors down from Lwin’s office stands the creamy, Italianate pile of the Sofaer building, built by wealthy Baghdadi Jewish merchants in 1906. It features steel beams made in Lanarkshire and encaustic floor tiles from Manchester, exotic imports that reflect the eclectic mix of shops it used to house, selling everything from German beer to Egyptian cigars and English sweets.
Once the city’s most prestigious commercial addresses, it had one of the first electric lifts in the country. Now, the rusty caged lift shaft is piled high with rubbish. The building’s light well has also become a dumping ground, its walls caked in soot and moss, its floor bristling with rats. Yet the place remains in use. Lawyers run their practices from tiny, windowless cubicles upstairs, an art gallery operates from the first floor, while a fancy Japanese restaurant recently opened on the corner – the fit-out entailed clearing away a metre-deep pile of sewage.
“We still carry on,” says one of the lawyers, sitting in his cupboard-sized office, a room wallpapered with colourful posters of imaginary landscapes with rolling green fields merging into gushing waterfalls. “There hasn’t been any investment in infrastructure for half a century here, so we’re more than used to these conditions.”
The YHT wants to see buildings such as this restored to their former glory, but the reality is not so simple. The messy legacy of British-Indian rule, Japanese occupation and property nationalisation carried out by the military junta, and its ensuing collapse, has left the city with fiendishly complex patterns of ownership. Title deeds have often been lost in the mists of time – eaten by white ants or washed away by Cyclone Nargis are two common claims – meaning that most of these historic buildings are likely to remain in limbo.
Other institutions struggle on in post-apocalyptic surrounds. At the divisional courthouse, a palatial complex of octagonal towers and Florentine domes originally built as the accounting office of British Burma, the windows have blown out and vegetation sprouts from every nook, yet inside the decaying shell, the courts continue to press on. Defendants sit on plastic stools before the judges, while clerks hammer away on typewriters out on the street beneath makeshift tarpaulin canopies.
Under military rule, Yangon was simply left to rot. Less than half of the city has access to piped water, while constant power shortages mean the streets are clogged with backup generators.
Roads were widened in the 1990s in a vain attempt to ease traffic flow, leaving far narrower pavements: this also made it harder for large numbers of people to gather, public meetings being a constant concern of the paranoid regime. The streets used to be lined with covered colonnades, providing shade from the sun and protection from monsoon rains, but they, too, were torn down.
What was once a perfectly walkable city is now a hostile place to navigate on foot. It’s not hard to see why developers are now proposing self-contained fiefdoms with everything supplied on site; including their own power generation and water supply, thereby creating hermetic worlds of offices and apartment towers perched on retail podiums, so you never have to leave your air-conditioned bubble.
The most lavish such scheme is currently being drawn up for the site of the former Burma Railway Company headquarters, a stately, redbrick Victorian building just north of downtown. Not much has changed since the 1870s; the current state of Burmese rail travel can be experienced by taking a ride on the city’s Circle line, which takes three hours to chug along a 28-mile loop around the city, moving no faster than a bicycle.
A recent deal with Japanese firm Mitsubishi will see the line upgraded, but the benevolence comes with a catch: in exchange for speed, the company has been awarded exclusive development rights to state-owned land along the tracks. A $500m (£344m) mixed-use scheme near the central station is now in the works, which, according to one source close to the project, will look like “a chunk of Tokyo airlifted into Yangon”.
It is no coincidence that Japan’s aid agency, JICA, has enthusiastically drawn up an infrastructure-heavy masterplan for Yangon’s development over the next 25 years, described by one aid worker as “an investment plan for Japanese business”.
But the Mitsubishi scheme will be a mere speck in comparison to what’s being dreamed up next door. Myanmar Railways is currently tendering a $2bn project of high-rise hotels, office towers and shopping centres across a 63-acre site, by far the biggest commercial development the country has ever seen, of a scale unthinkable a few years ago.
“The market has really exploded,” says Tony Picon, managing director of Colliers International in Myanmar. When he moved here in 2011, office rents were around $17 a square metre per month. A few years later, they had hit $100, making central Yangon a more expensive place to do business than downtown Manhattan, despite the average wage being just $2 a day. “Since the country opened up, more and more businesses have been flooding in trying to get a foothold here,” Picon says. “Supply simply can’t keep up with demand.”
A taste of what this steroidal supply might look like can be found in the offices of Yoma Strategic Holdings, a company owned by local tycoon Serge Pun, where plans for the former Burma Railway Company site are currently being drawn up. Images of the scheme, boldly christened the Landmark, show the elegant Victorian building cowering at the base of four vast towers – more offices, serviced apartments and hotels – sitting on a four-storey shopping mall that seems to be doing its best to throttle the historic structure (which will itself become a five-star Peninsular hotel, impeccably restored to the tune of $100m).
Rising to 25 storeys, the towers will be the same height as the nearby Sule Shangri-La hotel, a brutish megalith erected in the 1990s, whose construction provided the regime with a convenient excuse to level a group of coffee houses that were a popular hangout for the city’s activists and intellectuals. “It was the biggest mistake the city ever made,” says Lwin of the hotel. “The height of that hotel has now become the justification for every other development in town.”
The YHT successfully campaigned to introduce height restrictions around the Shwedagon Pagoda, along the lines of the building limits around St Paul’s Cathedral in London, but the rules have no statutory power and are barely enforceable. It appears that the government listens only when the monks join the cries of public protest, as they did in February last year.
Five major construction projects in the vicinity of the pagoda were halted by the government after a powerful national Buddhist group, the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, claimed the developments would affect the foundations of the temple. It was a spurious accusation, with no real structural calculations to back it up, but the authorities were sufficiently spooked by the ire of the holy men – perhaps with memories of the saffron revolution, when thousands of Buddhist monks rose en masse against the junta in 2007, still fresh in the mind.
The lawyers of Yangon could have done with a little divine intervention in their recent battle against the privatisation of the former high court and police commissioner’s office, a grand classical edifice whose ionic colonnade marches around an entire city block facing the waterfront on Strand Road. The place has a dark history; its top floors were used as torture chambers by the Japanese during the second world war and by the military regime in the 1960s and 70s. They will soon become the luxury spa of a new five-star Kempinski hotel, due to open next year.
When the project was mooted in 2012, the Lawyers’ Network, a local group of outspoken attorneys, did everything in their power to stop it, filing lawsuits against officials and investors, and arguing that the building should remain in public use as a court. But their case was swiftly kicked out. “Poor regulation and lax implementation mean that investors continue to be granted land obtained illegally or under dubious circumstances,” says Vani Sathisan, legal adviser at the International Commission of Jurists, a human rights NGO that has been focusing on the fate of land at the edges of the city.
“Communities that have lived on land for generations are routinely charged with ‘trespass’ and Myanmar’s land laws fail to adequately protect their rights.” Earlier this year, a mass eviction in a shanty town in Yangon’s Mingaladon Township caused several hundred families to be homeless without compensation or resettlement plans.
“I’ve not seen such a bad situation anywhere in the world,” says Mike Slingsby, an adviser to UN Habitat, whose career has taken him from slums in Vietnam and Cambodia to Bangladesh, India and Afghanistan. “Yangon is the only city where for the last 50 years no one has done anything to improve the lives of the slum dwellers. NGOs simply haven’t been allowed in.”
“Myanmar is not a poor country,” Slingsby adds. “The rich are extremely rich. It’s just a question of how they spend their money.”
The signs of wealth are everywhere, from the luxury gated village of the Pun Hlaing Golf Estate to the towers around swimming pools of Star City, both projects of the Pun empire. Across Strand Road from the future Kempinski, emblazoned across a construction hoarding on the waterfront, is an advert for the Vintage Luxury Yacht Hotel, offering its customers the chance to “be a king in 30 seconds”.
There is another way; one that doesn’t involve luxury hotels, corrupt generals or mass evictions. A block north of the waterfront on Merchant Road, workmen up ladders are carefully painting corinthian capitals with yellow limewash and adjusting teak window frames, putting the finishing touches to a restoration project that offers a different model for saving heritage structures, while training local builders in the process.
Over the last eight months, the Turquoise Mountain foundation – a regeneration trust founded in Afghanistan by the Prince of Wales and former Afghan president Hamid Karzai – has been working to restore the building in partnership with its residents and users, all of whom have been able to stay on site during the process and, crucially, will be allowed to remain.
“It’s a complete cultural cross section of Yangon in one building,” says project director Harry Wardill, pointing out the tea shops on each corner – one Hindu, one Christian – the little motel, a Buddhist monks’ memorabilia shop, a Muslim photocopy shop and a cafe serving up mohinga, the local fish stew. The lofty first floor was long ago carved up into a series of apartments, all of which will remain, despite most residents not having title deeds.
“Before the renovations, it felt like we were camping,” says Daw Khin May Lin, who lives here with her extended family of 13 in a room that used to be sheltered by tarpaulins hanging from the ceiling, channelling water from the leaking roof into a central gutter that poked through the window. Since the roof was fixed, they can live normally, safe in the knowledge that they won’t be evicted, nor their home bulldozed.
Funded by the Canadian government’s department of foreign affairs, the project has seen more than 250 local craftspeople trained to international conservation standards, in workshops covering everything from traditional lime plaster to architectural carpentry, brickwork and roofing. It has been a steep learning curve, not least because of the different attitude to using reclaimed materials, which are plentiful, high quality and easily sourced, compared with expensive imported ones.
“One of our main challenges was overcoming the suspicion of anything recycled,” Wardill says. “There’s a superstition about using old building components, because people think there might be evil spirits in the material from its past life.”
The project is due to be completed this month, providing the city with the first physical example of how a building such as this can be renovated in collaboration with its existing residents. But can it be replicated without Canadian philanthropy?
“There are plenty of residents in Yangon who can afford to do up their buildings, but don’t have the confidence, or just don’t think it’s possible,” Wardill says, a view shared by Lwin. “This provides a model and shows that it’s eminently doable – that if people get together, they can overcome all the obstacles.”
The foundation now has bigger plans on the horizon, currently eyeing up the crumbling courthouse at the bottom of Pansodan Street as a potential site for an expanded project, which could see a cultural centre, along with retail units for small businesses and startup office space, all managed by a local charitable trust that would plough any profits back into the building.
Outside the Merchant Street building, a lively gathering of writers and literary agents spills out on to the pavement from the Hindu teashop, where they have met on a weekly basis for the last 15 years, drawn here partly in honour of the fact that radical journalist and champion of press freedom U Sein Win used to live in the building.