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Tan Dawn Wei
Tuesday, Apr 29, 2014

Travel

Crusade to save Yangon's heritage

The Straits Times | Tan Dawn Wei | Tuesday, Apr 29, 2014

Yangon City Hall building in Myanmar. Dr Thant's vision for Yangon is a vibrant, green city boasting parks and an attractive waterfront, and an exciting cityscape with a mix of old and new; of beautifully restored heritage houses and gleaming modern buildings.

MYANMAR - As Myanmar sprints to catch up with its more developed South-east Asian neighbours, one man is in a different kind of race: to safeguard hundreds of precious colonial buildings in Yangon from the wrecking ball.

Historian and author Thant Myint-U, 48, is up against the tide of breathless development the country is experiencing since it opened its doors to the outside world after years of isolation and economic sanctions.

But in just two years since he set up his heritage advocacy organisation, Yangon Heritage Trust, Dr Thant and his colleagues have managed to save at least 50 buildings from demolition-happy developers ready to replace a century-old building with a cheap, no-character highrise that can fetch good rent.

"There is a growing and urgent need for residential and office space, there's money coming into the property market where you can imagine a huge threat to these heritage properties," said the American-born founder and chairman of Yangon Heritage Trust.

In town recently to give talks on Myanmar at the WongPartnership Leaders Forum 2014 and the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, he is the author of acclaimed books, The River Of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History Of Burma and Where China Meets India: Burma And The New Crossroads Of Asia, and a member of Myanmar's National Economic and Social Advisory Council.

Myanmar was under the British for 124 years and has one of the best and biggest collections of colonial buildings in Asia. Although woefully neglected, many still colour downtown Yangon today.

Upholding the city's architectural legacy was not a priority for the country's leaders, though they did have a list, compiled in the late 1990s, of 189 sites worthy of conservation. But not much has been done to them, and one was torn down by a property developer.

When the capital moved to Naypyidaw in 2005, the government also left a huge property portfolio, which ought to be managed by a single agency, said Dr Thant.

His vision for Yangon: a vibrant, green city boasting parks and an attractive waterfront, and an exciting cityscape with a mix of old and new; of beautifully restored heritage houses and gleaming modern buildings.

This will prove valuable in future, perhaps 15 years from now, when Myanmar becomes a middle-income country and needs to attract talent and foster creative industries.

"Then all of a sudden, having a downtown area where you can walk around, have bookstores and cafes and amazing architecture that no one else has, will be an enormous asset and we'll regret having destroyed that if we don't protect them now," Dr Thant said.

Born in New York City and educated at Harvard and Cambridge, where he earned his PhD in history, he first went to Myanmar at the age of eight and spent his teenage years there up until he went to university. About four years ago, he made Yangon his base.

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