Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Burma Fears Loss of Colonial Heritage!

Old Secretariat Building in Rangoon.
EMMA ALBERICI, PRESENTER: With the easing of sanctions on Burma comes concern that the unique built heritage of the country, in effect preserved by years of isolation, will be lost if something's not done to protect it.

In particular, historians, architects and planners are working together to develop a plan to preserve the unique streetscape of the city of Rangoon, once said to be the wealthiest city in Asia.

For the moment, many of the grand buildings of the era of the British are still standing, but they're at risk of being bulldozed by developers.

South-East Asia correspondent Zoe Daniel reports.

ZOE DANIEL, REPORTER: Desperately poor and crumbling it may be, but there's no hiding Rangoon's former glory. Boom-time buildings from the early 1900s still stand, frozen out of global progress by repression.

In their shadow, I take a walk with Burma's leading historian and driver of the new Yangon Heritage Trust. He leads me on a journey back in time to the days when Burma was a global trading hub under British control.

THANT MYINT-U, HISTORIAN: I think it would've looked very much like an Indian city of the time because the population would've been overwhelmingly Indian and then you would've had a sizeable both European, mainly British, mainly Scottish population. And also a lot of people of mixed descent. And the Burmese would've been a very clear minority, perhaps only about 10 per cent of the population.

Rangoon City Hall.
ZOE DANIEL: Burma's population remains extraordinarily diverse and in Rangoon the cityscape hasn't changed much either with a style reminiscent of Victorian Glasgow. It's one of the few positive side effects of years of isolation and lack of development and there's a real push on to preserve it.

THANT MYINT-U: Well this area used to be the commercial and the financial heart of British Burma. It's right in the middle of Rangoon. You have Chinatown and the Muslim quarter off to one side and then you have the docks area off to the other.

It was a very, very cosmopolitan place in the early 20th Century and it's a place that to some extent has been almost perfectly preserved for over 50 years.

ZOE DANIEL: While there's plenty left that's worth keeping, it's estimated that about half of the city's heritage buildings have already been lost to the wrecking ball. With sanctions now being eased, there's only a short window of opportunity to draft preservation guidelines before an influx of money leads to insensitive development.

High Court in Rangoon.
UN Habitat, newly set up in one of Rangoon's classic buildings, is supporting the local push.

MICHAEL SLINGSBY, UN HABITAT: Yes, indeed. No, it's a wonderful opportunity. The chances are here to preserve what is here before ad hoc development has taken place and to avoid the sort of mistakes that Singapore did and let all the shop houses be demolished and then just end up with a few streets that are preserved in a rather artificial way. There's a chance here to keep the whole fabric of the inner city preserved.

ZOE DANIEL: Many of the city buildings are former administrative offices, effectively abandoned when the Government built a new capital in Napidor and moved. But they're not all necessarily empty. Many buildings are being used by the poor, who call them home.

MICHAEL SLINGSBY: It's also important to take into account the fact that many poor people live in old buildings and they need to be dealt with very sensitively when it comes to renovation and provided with adequate accommodation in the same building or alternative accommodation which is acceptable to them.

ZOE DANIEL: The building styles are diverse, and while many were built not colonial era, a highly fraught period of Burmese history, the country's architects say it's a time that should be remembered.
Former Rowe & Co. Department Store in Rangoon.

CHAW KALYAR, MYANMAR ARCHITECTS ASSOCIATION: It is part of our history. We cannot erase them. We all have to accept that it is part of our history and it is the link between our past and our future. So these buildings are important in our history as well because we've been a colony for a hundred years.

ZOE DANIEL: Burma's president has agreed to a temporary moratorium on the demolition of buildings while the Yangon Heritage Trust puts together a plan which it'll present to the government in June.

New guidelines will aim to regulate renovation as well as sales so that private houses like this one are saved as well as government landmarks.

You find houses like this all over the city: doing it hard, clearly, but just waiting for a future, much like the country itself.

Rangoon Central Railway Station.
THANT MYINT-U: What would be great is if we could keep the overall sort of cityscape. I mean, the fact that you have people from so many different cultural backgrounds and religions living within a square mile and you have so many other aspects of the old city that are still around.

So rather than just sort of keeping a few big buildings as tourist attractions, if we can preserve as much of this cosmopolitan part of the city as possible, I think that would be a very useful - not just useful thing economically and perhaps in terms of tourist - drawing in tourists in the future, but also an important thing for this country as a multi-ethnic country going forward as well.

ZOE DANIEL: It's hard to fathom what these buildings have seen as they've stood through a century of war, dictatorship and sheer neglect. Those fighting for them now want to make sure they see progress and a place in the country's future.

Zoe Daniel, Late Line.
(Following video titled "Old Rangoon" is from Thuriasai's Youtube site. Rangoon was a cosmopolitan city that was compared to London during the prosperous colonial times as the capital of British Burma the rice bowl of vast British Empire where once sun never set. Colonial Rangoon, with its spacious parks and lakes and mix of modern buildings and traditional wooden architecture, was known as "the garden city of the East." By the early 20th century, Rangoon had public services and infrastructure on par with London. Next video is Rangoon University Professor Dr. Kyaw Thet delivering a lecture in 1957. With clipped Oxford accent he sounded like an English royalty but that was the way most highly-educated Burmese spoke in the good old days of British Burma.)