Experts warn of heritage demolitions spike

Yangon, February 4

Construction teams have torn down a clutch of Yangon heritage buildings in recent months, Myanmar conservation experts said today, raising fears that developers are rushing through controversial demolitions before an Aung San Suu Kyi-led government takes power.

Myanmar’s main city is in the throes of a construction boom, sparked by economic and political reforms under a quasi-civilian government led by former junta generals, which is in the process of ceding power to Suu Kyi’s pro-democracy party following its landslide election win in November.

But historian Thant Myint-U, whose Yangon Heritage Trust has lobbied to preserve the city’s crumbling colonial era architecture, has raised alarm over a recent surge in the destruction of old buildings.

“Over the past few months we’ve seen a rise in the number of demolitions, including six or seven buildings downtown, and also a lot of inappropriate new construction,” Thant Myint-U told AFP.

The recently razed buildings include a prominent teakwood house, police station and shophouse, the Trust said.

Thant Myint-U said he suspects the uptick in demolitions is linked to the country’s tense power transition.

“People don’t really know what’s on the other side of this change of government so I think people want to rush through whatever they can,” he said, adding that he expects the new parliament to tighten building codes and regulations.

Yangon maintains a list of 189 recognised heritage sites, but lacks legislation to protect the buildings, many of which have rotted into disrepair or been bull-dozed for new development.

The city lies at the centre of huge changes that have swept through long-isolated Myanmar under the quasi-civilian government that replaced outright junta rule in 2011, attracting surging investment in response to the reforms.

Cranes spike the skyline, while once sleepy streets are tightly packed with newly imported cars.

The changes have also unleashed a scramble for land, sparking conflicts between often impoverished locals and the state in a nation where ownership rights are notoriously murky, and the military and elites stand accused of widespread land grabbing.

Settling these competing land claims is likely to be a major challenge for the new government led by Suu Kyi’s party.

This week the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission raised concerns over a recent spate of evictions as government workers flattened hundreds of shanty homes in Yangon and Mandalay.

It said officials had failed to provide promised food, temporary shelter and healthcare for those made homeless in the expulsions.

“In reality there was no help for them, so they looked after themselves as best they could on the side of the road,” the statement said yesterday, urging officials to take care of the basic needs of those affected. In one of the controversial evictions, authorities used mechanical diggers to destroy nearly 500 shanty dwellings on land next to an army-owned factory on the northern outskirts of Yangon, leaving residents destitute in what many said was a shock move after just a day’s notice.

Tin May Win, 42, told AFP her family spent two decades cultivating the plot, which was an over-run mess of wild plants when they first arrived. “No owner ever appeared during the 18 years that I lived there,” she said.