101 East

Restoring Rangoon

101 East takes a rare peek inside Yangon’s most famous building, as Myanmar’s colonial architecture is under threat.

Myanmar’s former capital, Yangon, boasts one of the most spectacular early-20th century urban landscapes in Asia.

A century ago the country’s former capital was one of the world’s great trading cities and the legacy of that cosmopolitan past remains today.

Saved from the fate of other Asian cities due to the country’s isolation under military rule, Yangon’s downtown area is a unique blend of cultural and imperial architecture, considered to be the last surviving “colonial core” in Asia.

But as the country opens up, this unique heritage is under threat. Decades of neglect have left once grand buildings a crumbling mess and they are at grave risk of being demolished in favour of hastily built towers and condominiums.

Some of the damage has already been done as developers race to cash in on the country’s rapid pace of change. 

Myanmar historian and scholar, Thant Myint U, is leading the charge to preserve Yangon’s heritage and return many buildings to their former glory.

He has founded the Yangon Heritage Trust, a group pushing for a cohesive urban plan for the city. The stories of the buildings and the people who lived – and still live in them today, are truly unique in the world. 

101 East was granted rare access inside the famous Secretariat building, the site of Myanmar’s independence ceremony in 1948 and the assassination of national hero, General Aung San, the father of pro-democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi.

This immense building, which housed the parliament from 1948-1962 has been closed to the public behind razor wire for more than half a century and few have ever seen inside it. Its greatest challenge may yet be surviving the modern era as Yangon embarks on its dramatic transition into a modern Asian city.

Producer’s blog: The past that haunts Myanmar’s Secretariat Building

 By Aela Callan

“This place is about to change so much, but right now, the building feels like it’s ours,” assistant producer Pailin Wedel and I were taking in the sunset as it reflected cross the 16 hectare complex of the Secretariat, turning the walls the same deep shade of red as the flame trees in the courtyard. It was a high point after two days roaming around Yangon’s most famous building for 101 East on the shoot of Restoring Rangoon. We felt like explorers, discovering hidden corners and a ladder that took us to our spectacular vantage point on the roof. “Who knows what it will look like in a few years,” I said. “But for sure, we won’t be allowed to sit on the roof.”

The Secretariat, built in the late 19th century, is the grande dame of all Yangon’s historic buildings. It sits at the heart of the city, the former seat of British colonial power, but is more commonly associated with the assassination of Myanmar’s national hero, General Aung San. Yangon residents once spent warm evenings in the shade of its gardens, but when the military took control of the country in 1962 it was declared off limits.  

For generations it lay decaying behind razor wire, a source of mystery and majesty, still imposing in height and grandeur despite losing its domes during bombing by the Japanese in World War II, and sections of its roof in cyclone Nargis in 2008. The first time I saw the Secretariat, a year after the cyclone, I was pounced on by security guards when I tried to take a picture from the outside. It always represented a raw nerve for the military, who allowed 400 officers, police and their families to live there after the government shifted to the new capital, Naypitaw.

When we first walked inside the gates to meet the Anawmar Art Group, awarded the lease on the building last year, I was surprised. The couple who greeted us were in their 20s, Singapore educated and well spoken. The elegant Le Yee Soe and her husband Soe Thwin Tun did not imagine they would become managing directors of what is potentially one of the largest historic restoration projects in the world right now. “We wanted a place to showcase our art,” she said.

Their plan to turn the grand building into museums, galleries and a cultural centre no doubt caught the attention and imagination of the Myanmar Investment Commission, which hands out leases on government properties. Faced with rising public concern over plans to make it into a hotel, it put the Secretariat into the hands of the Anawmar group.

Executing that plan is another matter. The 400,000 square foot building is two-thirds the size of the exhibition halls of the Louvre in Paris. The Anawmar group says it will contribute $30m in restoration costs, as well as intangible assets such as paintings for a future museum and memorial to General Aung San. But a recent technical study estimated the total cost to bring back the building to be at least $100m.

Although the Anawmar group is not yet asking for money, it does need help. Few people with the expertise to restore this kind of building can be found in Myanmar.  The ancient temples of Bagan, the nation’s most striking ancient site, were reportedly denied UNESCO World Heritage status after repairs damaged rather than conserved their historic integrity. The young couple at the heart of this challenging project admit they have no experience in heritage restoration and are looking for expert help.

This kind of expert help is only likely to be forthcoming if the project is seen as being in the public interest.  Currently, the Anawmar Group is a private company.  While they told me they will not make money with the project, they have not yet publicly declared themselves a non-profit organisation. This has led to speculation, rightly or wrongly, about the nature of the group.

Quite quickly, I found that Soe Thwin Tun’s grandfather is a former general in the military government, U Tun Gyi, who was ousted in the Khin Nyunt purge of 1997, and is widely blamed for driving up the cost of cars through exploitative import licenses. Other board members of the Anawmar group include Soe Thwin Tun’s mother, Daw Thi Thi Tun, who amassed the family’s vast art collection and property investments, and famous Myanmar artist Nay Myo Say who has a good reputation as a restaurant owner.

It is my belief that the young couple at the core of the Anawmar group have genuine intentions to make the building public, and that this sincere intention won them the lease. Now, a key challenge for them will be creating an organizational structure that can best steer the building through the challenging period ahead and galvanise popular support for their project.

As with the transition that Myanmar as a nation has embarked upon, the past is dark, but there is potential for a bright future. The Secretariat may be in better hands right now than with one of the usual crony developers who want to turn it into the next hotel chain with identical coffee shops downstairs. Despite their lack of experience and clarity, this young couple may yet return the Secretariat to the nation as a source of pride. After all, it is the place where Myanmar, once Burma, began its transformation from a British colony to an independent and hopeful country.

undefined101 East airs each week at the following times GMT: Thursday: 2230; Friday: 0930; Saturday: 0330; Sunday: 1630.

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