Yangon (2007-2017) / Reshaping of the downtown Yangon Image for an Other Agenda
Alongside its transition into a democratic governance, and of almost equal momentum, is the county’s frantic desire for fast urban and economic development, of which has already begun in disjunction. Many problems accompany this drastic change, least of all because the country has had little holistic long-term planning for decades, the Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC) formed in 1990 reportedly have questionably trained staff but instead draw expertise in city planning but not Myanmar per se from foreign relations such as the UN Habitat and other international agencies (Brook 2014) (Gómez-Ibáñez, Bok and Nguyễn Xuân Thành 2012), amongst others. The country needs to be careful in how it envisions its future development.
The government seems to acknowledge downtown Yangon as a valuable site to be re-established in part due to its numerous cultural heritage buildings and sites which have witnessed important historical events, as well as the garnering local and foreign investment interests in it. Yet, it is the latter of a more commercial and financial agenda that seems to be in greater favor by the government (Aye, JICA to publish amended master plan by year-end 2016).
The Strategic Urban Development Plan of Greater Yangon formalised jointly between the YCDC and the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) intends to redevelop the downtown as a focal point in the city, of which it ‘lost’ when the military regime had suddenly relocated its governing body to Naypyidaw in 2005 as a political move, by re-establishing it as the Central Business District (YCDC and JICA 2014).
The former consideration however, of cultural and historical importance, takes an arguably far backseat. At most, JICA aims to enforce policies of protection for a listed 189 buildings, of which 40% are located in the downtown (YCDC and JICA 2014), height restrictions in the immediate vicinity and tentative ideas of revitalization of some buildings. Rapid urbanization and outward development that projects an economically progressive and modern city to attract larger investment takes a clear priority.
This shift in focus of the downtown area shares a discrepancy to the past image of the district. Many of area’s architecture and urban landscape has witnessed the country’s transformation during different ruling times. Its formalisation as the country’s centre was initiated during the British colonial period in 1852 with the layout of the urban grid, and stayed the capital even after gaining unstable independence in 1948 and isolation following the military coup in 1962. Before the relocation of the military junta, many of the country’s prominent historical events had already occurred in the downtown. Even so, it had still remained arguably the country’s Central Business District and one of its main destinations. As such, much of the architecture and the district represents a larger narrative and meaning in history and culture by association to significant past events and/or strong cultural and religious practices, of which they hold differing values to different stakeholders.
Take for example another urban proposal, not adopted formally but still widely acknowledged, is the Yangon Heritage Strategy given by the Yangon Heritage Trust (YHT), an organisation based in Myanmar, of which argues from the perspective of conservation and sustainability, quoting ‘by 2030, it [downtown Yangon] says could become a top international tourist destination, a centre for arts and culture, for creative and knowledge-based economies, as well as for manufacturing and service industries’ (Trust 2016). While no one questions preservation, and though the document tries to communicate its belief in development alongside conservation, this proposals clearly relies on the restoration and maintenance of its heritage buildings and sites to grow its economic attraction, but also ‘project narratives of national, regional and global prominence, without giving enough discourse to Yangon’s complexities of identity and history’ (Huynh 2017). As another urban strategy, YHS strives for a more socio-cultural image of Yangon in attracting development in the country.
Beyond the government’s control however, downtown Yangon has already been at length sporadically developed by the private sector, not least because the government has lost much ownership of many property in the area due to the privatization programme initiated during the military regime, poor enforcement of protection and land policies, and garnering local and foreign investment in the land.
Myanmar presents itself with each incremental change to democratization and simultaneously rapid strife for urban and economic development as an opportunistic land for local and international stakeholders, both of which will rely on, to an extent, the image of the city as it already was, and the envisioned future of the city.
Aye, Myat Nyein. 2016. “JICA to publish amended master plan by year-end.” Myanmar Times. November 24. Accessed December 13, 2017. https://www.mmtimes.com/business/23876-jica-to-publish-amended-master-plan-by-year-end.html.
—. 2017. “JICA updates 2040 plan for Yangon development.” Myanmar Times. January 4. Accessed December 12, 2017. https://www.mmtimes.com/business/24405-jica-updates-2040-plan-for-yangon-development.html.
Gómez-Ibáñez, José A., Derek Bok, and Nguyễn Xuân Thành. 2012. “Yangon’s Development Challenges.” Ash Center. March. Accessed December 13, 2017. https://ash.harvard.edu/links/yangons-development-challenges.
Huynh, Diana. 2017. “Imagined Urban Futures of Yangon.” Tea Circle. January 20. Accessed December 13, 2017. https://teacircleoxford.com/2017/01/20/imagined-urban-futures-of-yangon/.
Japan Internation Cooperation Agency (JICA), and Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC). 2013. A Strategic Urban Development Plan, The Project for the Strategic Urban Development Plan of the Greater Yangon. Final Report I, Yangon: Nippon Koei Co., Ltd, NJS Consultants Co., Ltd., YACHIYO Engineering Co., Ltd., International Development Center of Japan Inc., Asia Air Survey Co., Ltd., ALMEC Corporation.
Kennedy, Phoebe. 2011. “Colonial past could be the saving of Rangoon.” Independent. February 20. Accessed December 13, 2017. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/colonial-past-could-be-the-saving-of-rangoon-2219991.html.
Mon, Ye, and Myat Nyein Aye. 2015. “Government unveils Yangon development plan.” Myanmar Times. June 11. Accessed December 13, 2017. https://www.mmtimes.com/national-news/yangon/14977-government-unveils-yangon-development-plan.html.
Trust, Yangon Heritage. 2016. Yangon Heritage Strategy. Proposal, Yangon: Yangon Heritage Trust.
YCDC, Yangon City Development Committee, and Japan International Cooperation Agency JICA. 2014. A Strategic Urban Development Plan of Greater Yangon. Final Report II, Summary, Yangon: Nippon Koei Co., Ltd., NJS Consultants Co., Ltd., YACHIYO Engineering Co., Ltd., International Development Center of Japan Inc., Asia Air Survey Co., Ltd., ALMEC Corporation