YANGON —As chairman of the Yangon Heritage Trust, U Thant Myint-U seeks to preserve the architectural legacy of the city’s long history, including its many fine colonial-era buildings and its magnificent ancient pagodas. But for the US-born, Cambridge-educated historian and author of two acclaimed books on Myanmar, this mission is just part of a much wider vision: the transformation of Yangon into a modern city that cherishes its past and its natural environment, even as it accommodates the needs of business and ordinary citizens.
In this interview, U Thant Myint-U speaks with Kyaw Zwa Moe, the editor of The Irrawaddy’s English-language edition, about the challenges that Yangon faces as it tries to avoid the development pitfalls that many major Asian cities have struggled with. He says that while his ideas have been well-received by both the city’s government and President U Thein Sein, public support will also be crucial if the kind of city he envisions is to become reality.
Question: Let’s imagine the future. What is your vision of Yangon in a decade?
Answer: I’d like to see a Yangon that is both modern and also protects its very special heritage—and takes advantage of its natural position, as well. What we have right now is a city that goes back hundreds of years. We have ancient monuments like Shwedagon. We have a very special collection still of colonial-era architecture. We have a very green city. We have two lakes, we have parks, and we have this amazing waterfront.
At the same time we need more modern development—we need more roads, bridges, airports, infrastructure and electricity. We need high-rise buildings, shopping centers, everything. What I want to see is a vision and a plan that combines all these things in the right way, learning lessons from others’ experiences and avoiding some of the mistakes that have been made by other cities in the region.
A: I think it is a big challenge. I think the good thing is that the Yangon government is also very committed to trying to find the right way forward. They have been working very closely with the Japanese aid agency JICA in developing a master plan for the city, but mainly for the infrastructure, sewage, sanitation, transport, all of these issues. I think they are also very aware of the need to try to protect some of the colonial-era buildings and to protect the views of the Shwedagon as well.
Having said that, there are hundreds of challenges. Right now the market incentives are all wrong in terms of trying to protect a lot of the old buildings. And we’re entering into this period where there’s enormous pressure on land, where land ownership is unclear, where different government agencies own different pieces of land.
I think the last big challenge is for the poor people in this city. I think one thing is to protect the old architecture, one thing is to make this city work for business, but it also has to work for ordinary people. The trick is how do you combine all of these things—a city that works for ordinary people, a city that works for business, and a city that is beautiful and attractive, and that can be really a great city going forward, as well.
Q: Earlier this year, you gave a presentation to President U Thein Sein, and his response was very encouraging. So far, how much have you done and what is the current status of your project?
A: We have been part of a committee that includes us, the city government, and people from other industries to craft a zoning plan for the city. It’s the first zoning plan for Yangon in a long time. That is now finished. We hope very much that this will be officially adopted. We are also looking at the possibility of a conservation law.
Separately with the encouragement of the President’s Office, we are also starting a system of landmark plaques around the city. It can help tourists, but we also want it to help Myanmar people and people living here to really appreciate what has happened in these buildings. They forget all the Myanmar history that has taken place in these buildings. We are also trying to work with travel agencies to develop a project in a way that will also benefit people downtown.
Q: How can you educate people to preserve and appreciate the heritage buildings?
A: The most important thing to convince people is visualization. People have to see what we are talking about. We’ve talked about it. We can write about it. But what we want to do in the next couple of months are really high-tech visualizations of what Yangon can look like in the future.
Q: What makes Yangon unique?
A: There are many Asian countries that had very special architecture in the past, but almost all of that has been destroyed. Look at Bangkok, look at Jakarta and Singapore. Lee Kwan Yu said one of the big mistakes that he had made was destroying all the colonial architecture of the city.
[Besides its colonial architecture], Yangon has Shwedagon and Sule Pagoda [and other] great centuries-old monuments that will always be here. We still have a very green city, and then we have a city with rivers on three sides. We can make the waterfront not just an industrial area, but also a place that’s accessible to people to walk and enjoy themselves.
Q: The Yangon City Development Committee’s heritage list includes about 189 buildings. Have you managed to update the list?
A: Actually I think it’s 188. I think one’s been destroyed over the past 10 to 15 years. The YCDC is committed to protecting the buildings on this list, but there is no law behind it. So the list needs to be updated, and it needs to be backed by law. Over the past year, we have been doing a survey of about 500 buildings downtown. We will try to decide what the criteria should be for including buildings on the list. Including public buildings is not too much of a problem—the issue will be how to include privately owned buildings and [deciding] what the regulations [should be] for privately owned buildings that are over 50 years old.
There is a national heritage law which covers structures over 100 years old. That is the only law. So in theory, the Secretariat, for instance, could be considered covered by that law, and there are penalties for anyone who damages these structures. But my understanding is that the law was really intended to cover archaeological sites, like Bagan, and not urban structures, which have special issues about them. So I think in the future, it would be good to move toward a national urban heritage law. But that will take years, I think.
So what we’re hoping for is a local conservation law that [covers] both buildings on the list and buildings in conservation zones. Our zoning plan includes parts of downtown Yangon.
Q: How confident are you that you will succeed?
A: I’m confident that we will at least achieve what we set out to do, which was to protect 30 or 40 iconic buildings. I’m quite confident that no one is going to destroy these buildings. And I’m quite confident that the views of Shwedagon will be protected. I think we’ve achieved that in partnership with the government. Whether we can protect many hundreds of other buildings, including privately owned buildings, remains questionable. Whether we can come up with a scheme that will benefit the poor and middle-income people living downtown and keep old communities intact is also a question mark. Whether we can integrate this work into a broader urban vision is still a work in progress. So I think we have a core achievement, but we still have to work very hard. And we still need to have very strong public support.