The Secretariat: A Place of Commemoration (2006-2017)
From the early 60s up until the early 2000s, the military junta held the ruling power over Myanmar. Yangon was once the capital of the country until 2005 when it was moved to Naypyidaw. While the military was in power, many buildings were under the ownership of the government. During the time they left the original capital of Yangon, many of the government owned buildings were abandined without legislation and became neglected sites. Still officially under government ownership, but remained empty, programless and without proper maintenance.
One of the many abandoned buildings is the renowned Secretariat Building, also known as the Minister’s Building or Ministry Building, located in downtown Yangon. The several storied building is constructed in typical colonial style – pilasters, columns and all. Its exterior flaunts red brick masonry, with yellow brick work for the ornamentation details. At present, the building is over one hundred and twenty years old. It occupies an entire city block, a full sixteen acres in the Botanhtuang Township of Yangon.
The Secretariat had been the home of British authority for sixty years of the British rule. It was a significant work of architecture for the British colony but today, continues to remain important to the local Burmese people. Aside from colonial affiliation, teh site is a place of important local social and political happenings. It was there that the national hero General Aung Sang was assasinated on July 9th, 1947. General Aung Sang was an important political figure that instigated pivotal change for hte political standing of Myanmar during his time. He was responsible for the negotiation of Burma’s independence from the British. The assasination occurred just before the country became free to the public. His daughter, Aung Saang Suu Kyi continues to live on, and in a way continues to carry on the symbol of democracy General Aung Sang once did. The place was also used as a place of celebration as the ceremony of independence was hosted on January 4th, 1948. Following the military coup in 1962, the building became rebranded as the Minister’s Office – it’s access became restricted from public access. It was considered the house of the government up until the new capital of Naypyidaw was announced. The Secretariat continued to to be a symbol for the people – several protests (including 1988 Uprising and the Saffron Movement) treated it as a place of gathering and a stage for demonstration.
In the recent year of 2011, the government planned to renovate the building and privatise the site. There were plans of converting it to the hotel but due to public outcry and the insistence of the Yangon Heritage Trust, plans for a local historical museum went forward instead. The idea is to further involve the local public with the political history of Myanmar, whether the building becomes nationalised or privatised. Although the building still remains restricted from the public, every year it opens up on Martyr’s day. The day is a national commemoration of General Aung Sang – a moment in which the locals truly engage with their history. Commemoration day at The Secretariat was first brought to the public on Martyr’s day of 2014. Visitor’s were able to walk the grounds and access the restored and renovated parliament’s house, and there is a public viewing of the site in which General Aung Sang was assassinated. The interior of the room was redecorated so that all furniture and items were in place s they were the day of the assassination instead, in an attempt to amplify the gravity of the moment to the people.
Whether this is a way to preserve the local identity and preception of Yangon is something time will tell as the redevelopment of the Secreteariat advances. At present, Yangon faces the possibility of preserving only its ‘thin heritage’ – a phenomena that only encapulates heritage in terms of image and aesthetics. A generalisation of the city tailored for the eyes of the foreigner. The ‘thick heritage’ of Yangon comes from the several layers of the locals, a true depiction of what life in Yangon is and what the city means to the people. It is a concept that stretches far beyond the materiality and physicality of restoring the colonial architectures of the city. Preservation should extend beyond that and allow for more of the local narrative to evolve and develop – perhaps over time thisi is what the preservation of the Secretariat Building and the commemoration of memories that come with it will bring to the city. A heritage the embodies the importance of place from the perspective of Yangon’s people.
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Perrottet, Tony. “Saving Old Rangoon; With the easing of sanctions and censorship laws, Myanmar, long isolated by decades of military rule, is on the verge of rapid economic change and a new openness to outside influences. But what will become of its architectural treasures.” Magazine from the Wall Street Journal, February 2013. Accessed December 15, 2017. https://search.proquest.com/docview/1270376829?accountid=14548.
Aung, San Yamin. “Gen Aung San’s Secretariat Office to be Restored, Open to Public on Martyrs’ Day.” The Irrawady, July 5, 2017. Accessed December 18, 2017. https://www.irrawaddy.com/news/burma/gen-aung-sans-secretariat-office-restored-open-public-martyrs-day.html.
Aung, San Yamin. “Will Yangon’s Secretariat be Returned to the Public?” The Irrawady, July 18, 2017. Accessed December 18, 2017. https://www.irrawaddy.com/from-the-archive/will-yangons-secretariat-returned-public.html.