Road to ASEAN

'Relics of Rangoon': Book sounds alarm on Myanmar's historic buildings

Karla Cripps, CNNUpdated 8th June 2016
(CNN) — The warnings have been coming for years.
"Visit Yangon now before it changes forever."
It's a valid concern, given the rush of international tourists heading for the former Myanmar capital once known as Rangoon isn't slowing.
Increased flights, investments in infrastructure and a hotel boom have all coincided with the political changes of recent years.
But while this international attention is certainly playing a role in changing the face of Yangon's streets -- KFC, anyone? -- an even greater threat looms over the city's biggest tourist attraction -- its stunning heritage buildings.
According to a new book by international journalist Philip Heijmans, a lack of documentation and political will is seeing these gorgeous landmarks disappear.
Heijmans' "Relics of Rangoon," which profiles more than 200 of the city's architectural wonders, is the culmination of over two years of work with a team of more than eight researchers and hundreds of hours of interviews.
We caught up with Heijmans, who is currently living and working in Myanmar, to find out more about the city's heritage buildings and their odds of survival.
CNN: What inspired you to create this book?
Heijmans: When I had first taken up an editorship of a local newspaper in Yangon in 2013, my reporters would every now and then bring me a story about one of the city's many colonial-era buildings, and they were always fascinating.
It became quickly apparent that the rich built heritage of this storied city was going to be its defining aspect -- something that could make or break its romantic and iconic status in the region.
I had sought out materials to learn more about Yangon's colonial past and about the buildings themselves, but there was very little available and so I thought it would be cool to do a book that covered the topic comprehensively, featuring pictures of both the interior and facades of the buildings.
But months later, I realized that the project made no sense without the accompaniment of historical research for each of the buildings -- some way to truly tell the buildings' stories and historical impact, and so I kind of had to start basically from scratch with my researchers.
Relics of Rangoon
Yangon's High Court Building was built in the early 1900s.
Phil Heijmans
Which buildings should first-time Yangon visitors check out?
The majority of Yangon's most iconic structures are located in the Central Business District at the heart of downtown, the most well-known of which being the Secretariat, or former Ministers' Office, where the father of modern Myanmar, General Aung San, was assassinated in 1947.
It was also the seat of parliament after the country took independence from the British in 1948.
But aside from its historical significance, the massive red-brick Victorian structure is unmatched in size and grandeur by any other structure in the city.
Some other obvious choices would have to be the nearby High Court building, opened in 1911, and which today still serves as a courthouse even though the Supreme Court moved to the new capital of Naypyitaw some years ago.
The backside of the building, meanwhile, is Pansodan Road -- one of the more famous roads in Yangon with a number of colonial-era banks, administrative buildings and private offices that conclude at Strand Road running parallel to the Yangon River to the south.
There you will find the beautiful Myanmar Port Authority Building and across the street from that the Yangon Divisional Court, a portion of which was destroyed in World War II and never repaired.
Relics of Rangoon
Among Heijmans' personal favorites is the Balthazar Building on Bank Street.
Phil Heijmans
Why are these buildings under threat?
Since 1990, some 1,500 buildings in downtown Yangon have been torn down and, although the pace of that has slowed dramatically, it has by no means halted.
Take the Kyaikkasan Race Track, or Gandhi Hall, two places with a wealth of history that helped define this city's past.
Gandhi Hall, named after its most famous visitor, was also the site where the NLD (National League for Democracy) met to discuss how to move forward with the transfer of power after winning the 1990 elections (before the government discounted it), and in both cases there has been one proposal after another to tear them down.
It's disgusting.
But perhaps the bigger issue lies in Myanmar's stubborn need to tie everything in red tape, while simultaneously confusing basic jurisdictional issues.
Land and property rights are a mess and unclear in many cases, making it impossible to determine who has the right to sell or the responsibility to renovate.
In cases where it is clear, the cost of a responsible renovation is too much for owners to take on, and so they make it their mission put their property in such a state of disrepair that the municipality has no choice but to allow them to tear it down.
This often means that the tenants living inside are actually barred by the owner from making fixes themselves -- forcing them to live in squalor.
Is the government starting to recognize the value in saving these historic buildings?
There are good people in the municipal government as well as in the private sector that we worked with for "Relics of Rangoon" and the results are starting to show.
Several international bodies have come in and are taking it upon themselves to show the city that perking up some of these historical buildings can have a huge upside.
That being said, Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy have only recently begun governing on the regional and national levels and it is just too early to tell how much of a priority this particular issue will be to them.
Interview edited for length and clarity.