Saving Yangon’s heritage

Tin Yu Nwe
Moe Moe Lwin, vice chairperson of the Yangon Heritage Trust (Photo - EMG)
Moe Moe Lwin, vice chairperson of the Yangon Heritage Trust (Photo - EMG)

The Yangon Heritage Trust is on a mission to safeguard Yangon’s colonial-era buildings of historical and artistic importance. The non-governmental organisation has its own criteria when it comes to designating buildings as heritage sites. In this interview with Eleven Myanmar, Moe Moe Lwin, YHT’s vice chairperson, highlights the need to monitor the way some historical buildings are being used by private leaseholders and discusses whether the government should take conservation into its own hands.

Yangon boasts a plethora of historical buildings. How many exactly?

We need to know what we have first. Although the YHT was established three years ago, our coverage only extends to six townships in the downtown area and Dagon, Bahan, and Alone townships. Even though we are carrying out this work, we still don’t know the exact number [of the historical buildings] in Yangon.  We are still trying to figure out [the exact number]. We know what we have in the townships under our coverage. There are some disputes as to whether these buildings have to be over 100 years old or must have been built by only Myanmar people. As they are urban heritage sites, it does not matter who built it and when it was built. It depends on how much the city’s residents value them.

Who are your partners?

Our main partner is the [Yangon] City Development Committee (YCDC). We are only working as an NGO. If there were no NGOs, the YCDC would take responsibility. 

How’s the Yangon Master Plan (by the Japan International Cooperation Agency) progressing?  

We are working with JICA and other respective departments, especially the YCDC, in the drafting of a zoning plan for balanced Yangon development. The YCDC has only been granting building permits and it does not have a zoning plan for the whole city’s development and conservation areas. 

So we have been working together to hatch up a zoning plan. Since 2013, we have been in contact with respective social organisations, but we haven’t reached the stage where we receive recognition and confirmation from government agencies to carry out [our plans]. We are still in the early stages where we are sharing information with the developers. You can’t carry out these things immediately. Everyone needs to understand it very well. We need to do a lot of research.

Tell us about the zoning plan.

If you look at the city’s townships in sections, some areas need to be developed. If one keeps expanding the city as he or she likes, the urban sprawl will never end. The more it expands, the less orderly it gets. Many areas are worthy of development. We are not restricting the development. Development is needed in the undeveloped areas. For example, it makes sense to remove restrictions on the long-established height limits for buildings in some areas. But the most important thing is that some restrictions must in place in certain areas. Without restrictions, people will freely go on a building spree.  What I mean to say is that Yangon is unique. Luckily, it still retains much of its original [architectural] styles from the past so these need to be preserved. On this front, some need to be preserved individually while some need to be preserved as a whole. We need to encourage development in areas with smoother transportation. In areas that lack quality control, we need to upgrade the quality.

Is the construction frenzy in Yangon a threat to heritage buildings? 

The main [threat] is the changing urban landscape. Every city has [buildings] constructed consecutively over time. The buildings in the city have become settled in the landscape, environment and communities. When they are demolished and reconstructed, it’s like replacing an already-settled item with a new one. You will get a good result if you are shrewd. If you don’t care about them, the city won’t be much different from other cities. It’d feel the same whether it be Yangon, Mandalay, Lashio, or Muse. 

Since the new government started leasing some of the historical buildings out to private companies, YHT has advised the Myanmar Investment Commission (MIC) to draft the Conservation Management Plan (CMP). Do the tenants take the CMP seriously? 

I don’t think so. We need a law for safeguarding our heritage buildings. In fact there are existing laws to that effect, but we still don’t have a law to protect urban heritage sites. The government and the city authorities understand the basics and know the need for the law. But we need a law that ensures conservation. Since that law does not exist yet, we have advised the MIC [to ask the tenants to submit] a conservation management plan when they submit their business proposal. Just requesting is not enough. Actually, many processes are required [to check] whether they follow [the plan]. As this is only the start, only two or three [projects] have followed these processes. We don’t have experts who can really handle this in the country. For instance, a full understanding is needed for the conservation of the [former] Ministers’ Office, and grading is needed to identify which part should be left alone, and which part can be refurbished. If the roof needs to be replaced, how will it be done to prevent leakage that can over time wear off the existing brickwork? Basically mortar is used for renovating ancient buildings. It’s the same in other countries. We have been using them in our country too. But some have opted for cement and plastic paint to strengthen the buildings. But they are not suitable for old buildings in the longer run. They can cause the brickwork to decay.

YHT is conducting restoration work on the former Ministers’ Office in collaboration with Anawmar Art Group, but the CMP is being drafted by a foreign NGO. What’s your take on whether these processes are in line with the tender rules or not?

We believe that if an agreement has been reached on the CMP, [the concerned company] will inform the public on the pledges it has made to the Yangon Regional government, the Ministry of Construction, and the MIC to carry out its plans. If there are any changes that need to be made, they will inform everyone before making changes. I think the MIC already has a plan to inspect whether they’re actually following [the CMP] or not.

As the government is known for running loss-making projects, is it right for the government to handle the Ministers’ Office restoration project?

It would be great if the government can fully focus on such projects. I’m satisfied with renovation work on Yangon General Hospital. This [building] will continue to be useful in the future. It has been renovated with proper methods. It would be the best if the Ministers’ Office can be renovated like that. But the government alone can’t do this because it needs an income-generating scheme for the building’s long-term sustainability. It would be difficult to maintain it if the whole building were to be converted into a museum.

What kind of action is normally taken overseas if a tenant disregards the CMP?

Each country, region, and township has important buildings. For example, everything needs to be taken into consideration, for example, the surroundings of the Shwedagon Pagoda. You can’t do anything you want simply because you own the land. We need to consider how conservation of these areas is being carried out in other countries. In Yangon, the Ministers’ Office is of national importance while Kandawgyi and Inya Lake are on the city level. Each level has its own unique [landmarks]. That’s why penalties are included in the law for anyone threatening them on each level.

Have you started drafting the Yangon Heritage Conservation Law?

We submitted the bill to the [Yangon] Regional government in 2013, but we’ve received a response from them that it is unsuitable to be put into practice in Yangon at the moment.