Battle for Yangon

Squint a little and they are almost visible. The choleric soldiers in the uniform of empire, shining boots and brass buttons. The twirling women in flounces and frills. The Indian servants. The band pumping out a waltz for the ruling expatriates in this tropical colonial corner: the golden land of Burma.

In reality, though, the Pegu Club is a ghost of its former self. No one is sipping a gin Pegu cocktail on the terrace these days. The elegant pale-blue paint in the ballroom is flaking, the fluted pilasters have seen better days. Dust, dirt and industrious insects are taking a toll, and it won't be too many years before the damage is irreparable.

There are no developers sniffing around the Pegu Club, no architects with big plans. The once imposing building, with its high ceilings and tangled gardens, its carriageway and porte-cochère, is owned by Burma's notorious military forces; those generals who have never been answerable to the public. No one knows whether the generals are holding out for an extraordinarily high price, or whether they intend to redevelop the property themselves, or whether they will continue to let the Pegu Club moulder until it's too late to save it.

Rupert Mann strides across the dusty ballroom floor to look at the teak staircase rising nobly from the side of the ballroom. "The government here was once known as the Pegu Club government," he muses. "That's where all the decisions were made. Over the bar."

A co-founder and one-time president of the Melbourne Heritage Action group, the 28-year-old cultural heritage specialist and consultant has been fighting for built heritage in Victoria's capital for years. Now he has joined the heritage battle in Yangon. "When I came here, I felt like I was in a suburb of Melbourne that I'd never seen before," he says. "It was so similar; the buildings and nooks and crannies. But it had this other essence, this exotic essence to it. This was a city that was unique in the world."

Long-standing international sanctions kept foreign developers away from Burma for decades, and much of Yangon's rich array of colonial architecture has been left intact, but it's largely dilapidated, neglected and gently crumbling. In any other Asian city, the Pegu Club would almost certainly have been knocked down decades ago and skyscrapers would fill the site.

In the early 1900s, Yangon, also known as Rangoon, was a bustling port city with a wildly varied population of Madrassi and Bengali Indians, Burmese of different ethnicities, Cantonese and Hokkien Chinese, and Scottish, English and European expatriates. Mann, like so many foreigners before him, has fallen in love with the faded glamour of Yangon, entranced by the kaleidoscope of cultures, the golden temple spires, the streets of imposing colonial monuments. It's easy to hear the admiration in his voice as he stands in the cobwebbed foyer of the Balthazar building in the heart of the city.

"It's incredible," he says, of the Beaux Arts structure. Pointing to the Italian marble floors, the huge staircase and, perhaps especially, to the birdcage lift sitting crashed in the bottom of the lift-well, he shrugs. Negotiating any kind of architectural conservation will take immense time and energy: the Balthazar is partly owned by the nation's Ministry of Livestock, and partly perhaps by some of the tenants.

Around the corner stands the ochre-coloured and ornately encrusted Sofaer building, which once housed a Reuters telegram office and shops selling a wide variety of international produce: German beer, Egyptian cigarettes and English sweets. These days the Sofaer building is home to a number of long-standing tenants, many of whom hang their washing on the curlicue facade. "Yes, it's a difficult one," Mann says.

Mann first began working with the non-government Yangon Heritage Trust organisation in July last year, and his position there will be funded by the Australian government for two years. Devoted to the city's architectural heritage, the Trust is compiling the first inventory of Yangon's historic buildings as well as promoting the importance of architectural conservation and negotiating with the authorities and with interested parties.

Mann will help compile the inventory, as well as help draft Yangon's first generation of urban heritage planning laws, processes and guidelines. "It's the kind of urban-conservation discourse and argument that has gone on in Melbourne since the 1970s," he says. "That learning curve of 40 years is being compacted into one or two years here. Through Melbourne Heritage Action I've got to know ... what hasn't worked in Melbourne. We can see where developers have found loopholes and ways around the heritage legislation."

Burma today is run by a band of current and former generals. Ruled by a military junta for nearly 50 years, the nation is accustomed to rough justice. Finally staging a quasi-democratic election in 2010, a poll widely criticised as rigged, the generals deftly catapulted themselves back into office. The nation's president, Thein Sein, is himself a former general, and so, too, are a number of his ministers.

Still, after shedding their uniforms and donning civilian clothes, the ruling soldiers did finally begin releasing political prisoners, including Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. They eased press censorship, and began peace negotiations with insurgent ethnic groups. International sanctions have largely been lifted and the long-shuttered nation has slowly come out of the shadows.

But before their new incarnation as pseudo-democrats, the generals built Burma a new capital, Naypyidaw, more than 300 kilometres away. Ministries and ministry staff began making the move north in 2005, and a number of government offices in Yangon were abandoned.

For many of these buildings, the need for some sort of maintenance is becoming more urgent. If these structures are neglected for too much longer, demolition may become the only option. But in some cases ownership is split between two ministries. This means that individuals have somehow come to own, or part-own, a part of a government building. "It's a headache," says the Trust's executive director, architect Moe Moe Lwin.

In other cases, ownership is contested by those whose title was nationalised after the 1962 coup that brought the generals to power. "Many Indians were forced to leave the country [after the coup]," Moe Moe Lwin says. "But they still have the ownership. It's in the deed, it's an Indian name, but they never come back. The tenants, they have been there for 40, 50 years, then they can claim ownership. Sometimes there are at least 20 different people claiming different pieces."

And so, in many cases, the heritage battle is stalled. No government would be happy to unleash the fury of these tenant-owners and especially not an administration readying itself for a 2015 election. The attempted sale of the faded red former High Court building, an imposing edifice with a domed clock-tower, prompted bitter street protests by lawyers wearing their legal gowns. The sale was subsequently abandoned.

Yet there are some hopeful signs. The elegant turquoise exterior of the still-functioning District Court was once notable for the flourishing vegetation sprouting around the edges of its roof domes. Now the weeds have been removed, and although the building is still stained with mildew, those marks may well be the next to go.

Wholesale conservation efforts are underway with a few buildings, but a couple of those projects, too, have attracted controversy. The business tycoon and long-time regime crony Zaw Zaw bought the former immigration department, which in colonial days was the Rowe department store. He has already plastered over the exterior's original bands of tuck-pointed brickwork, but Mann thinks the newly renovated building could work wonders.

"Strictly, it's not what you'd like to see," he says. "At the same time, that building will form a very important example of a heritage building that's been restored. This is a building that's right in the heart of the city. It's important for local people to see that these buildings can look very different to how they have looked for the past 50 years."

Work has also begun at Yangon's former railway ministry headquarters. Built in the 1800s, the elegant and faded edifice is constructed from laterite stone, making it a rarity in modern Burma. Yoma Strategic Holdings, founded by Burma business tycoon Serge Pun, plans to transform the building into a luxury hotel.

Yoma's chief executive, Andrew Rickards, says the development of colonial buildings is moving slowly perhaps because too much is expected, too quickly. The Serge Pun group has held the railways building for about 15 years, he adds, and times have changed. "Now people are somewhat belatedly coming to the party and trying to get hold of some of these other buildings, at a time when perhaps the ministries are holding out for very high sums of money."

After all, the world is watching. The story of Yangon's heritage conservation has been told in newspapers and magazines in Europe, the US and Asia, and broadcast on global TV networks. Nations and corporations have donated to the Trust, and tours of the city's historic heart have been introducing tourists to the architecture of the past.

"There's one chance to get this city right, and it will happen in the next few years," Mann says. "It's a privilege to be a part of that."

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The story Battle for Yangon first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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