Myanmar's former capital is home to a large number of British colonial buildings, many of which are in danger of being destroyed amid gentrification as the isolated country opens up to the world.
Watch the video and answer the questions below about it.
The activity is suitable for intermediate students.
1 What have the buildings in Yangon survived?
2 When was U Thant United Nations Secretary General?
3 Why are the old buildings being destroyed?
4 When have political reforms been introduced in Myanmar?
5 How much do low-income people pay to live in the buildings in the city centre?
6 What does '16', '4', '20' refer to when talking about the building that we are shown?
7 What two main factors should be taken into account when planning new developments in Yangon?
8 Why is Japan important for the future of Myanmar?
9 How skilled are constructions workers?
10 What are the pressures on the city that are mentioned?
On a busy morning, commuters cross the Angon river. As they enter Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city and former capital, they pass British colonial buildings. These buildings survived devastating cyclones, the Japanese bombs of World War II and, in many cases, decades of neglect.
What we have is one of the last nineteenth, early twentieth century cityscapes left in all of Asia, and that’s valuable in itself. And I think this is something where, if not now, ten, twenty years in the future if we destroy it, we’ll regret it.
Thant Myint-U is founder and chairman of the Yangon heritage trust. He’s also the grandson of U Thant, the Burmese diplomat who was the United Nations Secretary General in the 1960’s.
He’s concerned his city’s architectural heritage will be destroyed in the rush to build new hotels and office towers, so his group is pushing the government to enact preservation laws.
One of our main ideas is that as the city modernizes, if we can protect a lot of this heritage and build on it, as well as having a modern city we can have only of the most cities in the region as well.
For decades, when Myanmar was controlled by brutal military regimes, it was one of the most isolated nations in the world. Since introducing political reforms in 2011, foreign investment is flooding in, and poor people here are getting priced out.
I think we also have to put at the forefront the situation people, especially low-income families who live downtown, many of them can live downtown because of rent control, many of them pay almost nothing to live in these buildings, which means also the owners do nothing as in many other places to keep up these buildings.
The people who live in this crowded pre-war building say the owner wants to knock it down and build a new luxury condominium. There are sixteen apartments. This unit alone houses four families, more than twenty people.
Tachi Bio has lived here all his life. He says if his family has to move, they’ll have nowhere to go.
We have to get the economics of this right, so that we can come up with a coherent plan that both creates market incentives for renovating these buildings, but also make sure not only that people who want to stay can stay downtown, but also that would encourage these people to stay downtown, because I think the worst thing that could happen is the buildings get all knocked down. But I think the second worst thing is the whole place is gentrified, it’s full of only tourists and maybe some rich people, and I think if we want to try and keep in tack as much as possible these very all communities that live downtown as well.
Myanmar is attracting investment and aid from the west in countries across Asia, like Japan which is managing Yangon’s multi-billion dollar urban development plan.
We want to support the economy development and win for Myanmar and win for the international business sector, including Japanese businessmen also.
The challenges are great. Much of the city’s infrastructure was built during colonial days is falling apart, train cars are dilapidated, sidewalks are broken, the roads are old and congested, across society, education is rudimentary, and people need training.
So this is our studio…
American-trained architect Steve Zaomoe Shwe says there is also a shortage of skilled labour.
We basically have to teach the tiler how to lay tiles, you know, how you put together things on the jobsite because they don’t have the experience. All they know is one way to do things, so there’s a lot of challenges on their part, too.
This city has yet to develop building codes or even zoning laws. Good will and foreign aid alone cannot fix the chaos.
In many ways, I mean at the official level, things are being remarkably good. I think the problem is there are tremendous development pressures on this city, there’s a lot of business that is very difficult to regulate, and try to bring some degree of ordered coherence regulation is gonna be an uphill battle, even again with the highest level of political support.