Letting the colonial relics rot

Rangoon Secretariat building

The Secretariat in the foreground and St. Paul's Cathedral and Shwedagon Pagoda in the background.

After reading an article about Rangoon’s Secretariat building (alternatively called the Prime Ministers’ Office or Ministers’ Office) in shambles in the New Era Journal (Burmese article here, but I cannot find an English translation), I felt compelled to write about the situation of preserving colonial buildings in Burma. The Secretariat is a very important historical landmark, considering the assassinations of Aung San and other ‘martyrs’ occurred there. Martyrs’ Day, which recently passed, commemorates what happened there that day. Moreover, the building, which was built in the colonial era, was home of the executive during the formative years of a newly independent Burma.

Located on Theinphyu Road, the Secretariat is a block away from St. Paul’s Cathedral. The building is a handsome piece of work, and despite its now grimy and unkempt exterior, its facade is intricate, probably appealing to colonial tastes back then. In addition, the building is listed on Rangoon’s heritage list, that is, list of buildings and sites to preserve and renovate (also on the list are other famous buildings like the High Court and the General Hospital). The Secretariat was abandoned during the government’s move to Naypyidaw. The article sadly states that air conditioners and other items were removed from the walls, leaving them dotted with many holes. Similarly, according to the report, banyan trees and the like have extensively colonized the Secretariat.

It is because the government is fickle with its ambitions–upon realizing that the colonial charm of Rangoon appealed to tourists, it published a list of buildings to preserve, although by that time, many were gone. But I believe there has been a shift in priority again. Now nouveau gaudiness, as seen in the architectural style of Naypyidaw’s multicolored pastel buildings (resembling a crayon box, at least to me) is fashionable. Chinese-styled glass-paneled buildings are also common, while colonial buildings languish. And especially buildings like the Secretariat, which ought to be a living memory of the assassination of Burma’s founding father and members of the cabinet.

But I guess Burma’s stunted economic development should be thanked for having kept many of these colonial buildings around for as long as they have. Other Asian cities have lost them rapidly and Rangoon still has the largest collection of such buildings, according to the BBC. But I hardly doubt this will encourage renovation and restoration. The Myanmar Times reports that the Sakura Tower is opening up its 7 top floors for rent, nine years since it was built. A sign of economic rise? Probably not, but it does show how scarce office space is getting, because the Sakura Tower, as I remember it, was virtually half-empty only two years ago. This may be a sign of bad things to come, like demolition and construction of new office buildings where decrepit buildings occupy valuable land. This is pretty common, for the government to auction off its buildings to private contractors who do as they please.

I believe an international effort is needed. Perhaps a joint UNESCO restoration project, but I hardly doubt that the Burmese government will allow this probing and pestering from an international organization that would then have access to the real Burma. What made me love Rangoon so much was its history, displayed like a diorama at open house. Now that there is little use for many of the remaining colonial buildings, which used to house much of Burma’s government, I can only wonder, what will become of them?

5 thoughts on “Letting the colonial relics rot

  1. B.P. Bach says:

    Thank you for showing the picture of the Secretariat. Do you have any more pictures? I was there in 1986, but only saw it from a distance, as it was of course off limits. I agree totally with your sentiments regarding the colonial era buildings. As the author of the book, ‘Calcutta’s Edifice: The Buildings of a Great City’ (found via Google or at Amazon.com), I care greatly about these and other heritage sites. When it comes to Burma though, I am not very optimistic about the future of these remarkable structures.

  2. Kyaw says:

    Thanks for the article.
    Its a shame that these relics are really rotting.
    You see, in Singapore, their government shamelessly builds colonial style buildings, and give British names, to blow-up Singapore’s short history and historical importance, while in Yangon, we let ours rot and remove our colonial past / heritage. We have so many, yet cannot show.

    The government could have saved so much money and face if it had (carefully) repaired these grand buildings instead of building sand castles and crayon boxes in the middle of nowhere. Lets hope the British really built these buildings to last.

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