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Myanmar government urged to stop misusing volunteers

Myanmar government troops on patrol

Yangon (dpa) – The head of the Myanmar Red Cross Society Friday urged local authorities to stop misusing its staff after four were injured in ambushes in fighting between government troops and rebels which left more than 130 people dead in Shan state.

The Myanmar Red Cross Society (MRCS) is under the control of the authorities including the police under a 1959 law, said Dr Tha Hla Shwe, its chairman.

"Red Cross staff had been misused for a long time. This tarnishes the MRCS image and just a few people sees us as third party," said Tha Hla Shwe.

He was appointed in 2014 as the first civilian chairman of the society in half a century.

The former military regimes listed humanitarian groups such as the MRCS in the reserve forces of the army or as militia groups shortly after a pro-democracy uprising in 1988, to counter anti-government movements.

"Stop using our volunteers as security personnel and in other forms of misuse. And let us get on with our business," he said.

Four volunteers were injured in three separate ambushes on a Red Cross convoy near Laukkai, capital of Kokang self-administrative zone in Shan state. The volunteers were trying to rescue civilians who fled the region to escape the ongoing fighting between troops and Kokang rebels.

The army blamed rebels for the attacks on the Red Cross convoy, but the rebels denied it.

"According to our experience, soldiers pretended to be members of the Red Cross to collect information in some ethnic areas. So, it’s not a strange thing that most don’t see the MRCS as a non-governmental organization," said Saw Win Kyaw, director of Back Pack Health Worker Team, which has provided healthcare in rural and conflict areas for decades.

The MRCS should reform as soon as possible to change its image and to be a functioning humanitarian group, he said.

"We hope the new draft law will be in parliament soon as we already sent it to the president's office in early 2013," said Tha Hla Shwe.

"In the draft, we mainly focus on amending the organizational structure. We want civilians such as town elders in the leading role at every level so that we can perform our duty well," he said.

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Posted by on in Business
Misunderstanding Myanmar's military
By Tim Heinemann

This article is written in response to Time to engage Myanmar's military by Adam P MacDonald, published on this site on February 4.

It is troubling to recently hear of international assertions that the sovereign panacea for what ails Myanmar is the mere "professionalization of the Tatmadaw" - ie, the military. This is profoundly off the mark in grasping what Burman-dominated armed forces both have been and still remain: either a brutally armed enterprise or a profit-making military machine.

"Educating leadership out of its dark old ways" reflects the same naivete that the world has witnessed in failed international interventions in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Internationals, seeing themselves coming to the rescue in Myanmar, are on the same track again.

In order to reach viable solutions for this country with its rich geo-strategic, human and natural resource potential, there are several critical realities to be faced concerning military reform or Security Sector Reform (SSR) as it is referred to in Myanmar’s case. The context for this understanding should be based on the realization that the Tatmadaw is the core of a massive repressive governance apparatus, whose old power brokers are still in power.

In simplest terms, Burman generals have provided the central direction and muscle in designing and wielding the Burman-dominated Army as the lead instrument of government in dominating ethnic minorities. This has been for the specific purpose of controlling ethnics’ ancestral lands rich in most of Myanmar’s natural resources, host to the majority of its hydro-power potential, and dominating most of its borders and international trade route access. In other words, the basis for Myanmar’s economy.

In this regard, this is an army and a corresponding government apparatus that have been specifically designed to exploit for profit … not to protect. The notion of "professionalization" of military leaders is hardly aligned with this reality.

As unpleasant as they may be for the international community already engaging in the region, there is no short-cut around facing certain immovable facts. This done, it might then be possible to arrive at viable solutions that respect the highly multi-ethnic nature of this promising nation state.

That said, the first mistake to be corrected comes from shifting away from the Burman versus Non-Burman Ethnics paradigm that promotes a Bad Guy against Good Guy construct no matter which side of the equation one favors. The main contest today in Myanmar concerns the government’s acknowledgement of ethnic state rights as the only possible basis for a functioning federal union for enduring stability and prosperity.

First, the focus on the "military in politics" theme misses the mark from the outset as to what the major issue is in Myanmar today. The Tatmadaw, whose raison d’etre is the for-profit internal control of landed ethnic minorities, produces symptoms that are disconcerting: the rigging of the constitution in favor of the military, the immunity of Burmese generals from prosecution, the guarantee of military controls in parliament and in other governmental decision making - all predicated on the imperative to control ethnics’ lands at all costs.

Correctly stated, it is not "military in politics", but instead "military in profit-making" that merits international attention. This is because politics, governance and the rest are all tributary to those who control military and economic power. It will take much more than professionalization to address the entrenched mentality, methods and mechanisms of repression still at work today in Myanmar. Politics remain subordinate and tributary to profit.

Second, it should be appreciated that America and the international community involved in Southwest Asia for the past 13 years significantly erred by automatically favoring the establishment and empowerment of strong, but unproven centralized governments and national armed forces. This ignored the reality of the highly multi-ethnic and well-armed societies in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

The subsequent failure to creatively engage state and local level governments and their security forces in a fair and balanced way that respected states rights as a counter-balance to central government dominance, is or at least should now be compelling as internationals contemplate constructive next steps in Myanmar.

Third, internationals’ presumption that the Tatmadaw constitutes the sole legitimate security service to be engaged, is conspicuously bereft of logic. The Tatmadaw, which still remains unveted and unaccountable for decades of crimes against humanity, war crimes and human rights violations, hardly meets the baseline credibility criteria as a nation state defense force. Its ongoing attacks against various ethnic groups after decades of the same, does little to elevate the Tatmadaw to a posture of credibility just yet.

The fact that it uses ceasefires and negotiations to strengthen its hold on ethnic lands, reinforces and hardens its forward bases, forward postures its attack helicopters, and conducts intelligence and reconnaissance operations to penetrate ethnic sanctuaries, are all indicators that further cast doubt as to its sincere interest in substantive reformation that in any way threatens its profiteering, and subsequent hold on power and politics.

The all-too-apparent tendency by the international community to tacitly favor the Tatmadaw, while concurrently relegating ethnic armed forces to the margins, reflects a collective poor grasp of reality and history. Non-Burman ethnics, as the original inhabitants of Burma, preceded Burmans by almost 2,000 years in some cases.

Many championed democratic principles and died for it going all the way back to World War II, when they sided with the United States and Great Britain. They further did most of the dying on the battlefield against Burman’s totalitarian regimes throughout Burma’s pro-democracy era in the protection of their ancestral lands and families. It is significant to note that no Burman general ever took such a stand.

To now automatically give deference the Tatmadaw without seriously and substantially engaging, empowering and developing state and local ethnic governments and their armed forces, does not credibly pass the fundamentals of real politick for multi-ethnic societies. This imbalance is dangerous to peace and progress.

Implications
The line of reasoning that the international community might better pursue is one of "inclusive security sector reform" and not "one-side professionalization of the Tatmadaw". Security sector reform (SSR) logically involves balanced participation by all military, intelligence and police services including Burmans and non-Burman ethnics alike.

It should be appreciated that ethnic armed forces have witnessed Tatmadaw oppression, and have seen Burmans get enormously wealthy and powerful off of this, yet Burman generals are somehow now elevated by the international community as "legitimate enough" for professionalization, because of Myanmar government assertions of "reform on the march".

This is perplexing, to say the least, for those who have held the line against Tatmadaw attacks against ethnic villages for decades, and who continue to defend against Burman generals insisting on controlling ethnics’ lands for profit. Transformation nor professionalization, is certainly in order here, as the aggression and profiteering continue.

The larger issue, however, that Burman and non-Burman ethnic generals are collectively squandering a phenomenal opportunity today based on a single fact: Myanmar has the best potential in all of Southeast Asia for broad-based prosperity. This is a circumstance not enjoyed by many other nations around the world which have not been so blessed by geography, climate and human diversity.

This is the potential tie that binds all sides today In Myanmar, and is precisely where the international community and America need to focus their constructive engagement. Much of it is about naturally evolving Myanmar out of its Dark Ages approach to "profit for a few", and instead exploring many options on how to optimize prosperity by which all might benefit.

Prosperity over profit
Internationals’ professionalization of the Tatmadaw alone will only likely ensure Burmans’ continued exploitation of well-armed ethnic minorities and thereby assure more conflict in the future. The dirty reality in Myanmar is that "it is all about the land … the control of it and the prospering from its fruits". The international community can run, but it cannot long hide from this reality.

This community can best assist by promoting dialogue, concepts and practical initiatives that respect and balance the rights of all Burman and non-Burman stakeholders. The present top-down programmatics of aid, development and business initiatives that remain under Burman control, is hardly a creative or viable way forward.

There are abundant models around the world of inclusive economic and community development that can be shared, adapted and piloted today in Myanmar in ways that empower ethnic communities respectful of their states rights within a federal union.

These rights are specified in the Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States, Dec 1933, which is internationally regarded as the authoritative basis for statehood criteria. This elevates the discussion today in Myanmar to the level where it needs to be: One of states’ rights counter-balancing the power of central government….Not the old "Burmans versus non-Burman Ethnics" contest.

If we further look at the verbiage in the UN’s Declaration on the Right to Development, 4 December 1986, its Article 1 addresses the fundamental issue of Development, in which all-important land control is pivotal in Myanmar:
Article 1
1. The right to development is an inalienable human right by virtue of which every human person and all peoples are entitled to participate in, contribute to, and enjoy economic, social, cultural and political development, in which all human rights and fundamental freedoms can be fully realized.
2. The human right to development also implies the full realization of the right of peoples to self-determination, which includes, subject to the relevant provisions of both International Covenants on Human Rights, the exercise of their inalienable right to full sovereignty over all their natural wealth and resources.

Past and present assertions of the need for "international professional engagement of the Tatmadaw" as the center of gravity for reform in Myanmar is true in a narrow sense, but it does not fully convey the approach to be taken for full inclusion of non-Burman ethnic minorities which have long met the criteria as states.

These assertions further fail to address the "land control" issue which should be center stage in developing durable central government - state governance compromises.

The security of commonly shared development prosperity has the potential to be more of a compelling motivator to bring all sides together in thoughtful contemplation of prosperity for all, than does the prospect of mere political dialogue and lopsided professionalization of one part of Myanmar’s multi-facetted, multi-ethnic security sector.

In the end, it will come down to face-to-face discussions between military power brokers, not their negotiators, on both sides on the issue of land control and the security of land in a balanced manner so that all sides may prosper. This likely means coming to grips with the balanced professionalization and empowerment of national and state police forces, armed forces, and intelligence services by which both economic and political power at both state and nation state level can be mutually protected.

In the end, this has little to do with Tatamadaw professionalization, and everything to do with its evolution toward an inclusive profit-sharing model that respects ethnic states rights

Tim Heinemann is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, and former Dean of Academics, US Army Command and General Staff College, who is now a counter-terrorism trainer for US Department of Defense. As a lead US Special Operations planner in 2003, he unsuccessfully promoted the concept of inclusion of ethnic minorities in balance of power solutions in Iraq. He has just returned from northern Iraq working on an initiative to assist ethnic Kurds contain ISIS. He has worked with pro-democracy ethnic minorities in Burma since 2004.

 

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Troubled copper mine a ‘cautionary tale’ for Myanmar investors

<p>A dump truck operates at the S&K mine, part of the Monywa mining complex (Credit: Amnesty International)</p>

On December 22, a China-Myanmar joint venture developing a copper mine in central Myanmar announced that it had gained “broad community support” to continue the controversial project and that it would be expanding the area covered by the mine.

The day ended with 56-year old Daw Khin Win shot dead and two other villagers injured as police opened fire with live ammunition on local protesters.

The bloody day in December was only the latest violent incident to mar the Letpadaung project, part of a larger mining complex located in Monywa, Sagaing Region. People living around the massive Letpadaung mine have long protested against forced evictions, occupation of farmland and the environmental damage wrought by the project.

In 2012, white phosphorus incendiary munitions were fired at protesters, inflicting injuries including severe burns on more than 100 people including Buddhist monks who were demonstrating against the project.

A comprehensive report released Tuesday by London-based campaign group Amnesty International — outlining a litany of violations linked to the project — adds to a long list of accusations that rights abuses continue under the nominally civilian government that came to power in Myanmar in 2011. But the report is also potentially damaging to the government’s efforts to show that extractive projects in the country can be conducted responsibly. 

The report, titled Open for Business? Corporate Crime and Abuses at Myanmar Copper Mine, runs to more than 200 pages in length and “exposes how Myanmar offers the perfect storm of a rich natural resource base and a weak regulatory framework that has allowed foreign and Myanmar companies to engage in and profit from serious human rights abuses,” it says.

“The Monywa project is a cautionary tale for the government of Myanmar and investors. Foreign investment cannot benefit Myanmar when such contexts prevail.”

The project dates back to the 1990s, when Canadian firm Ivanhoe Mines (now known as Turquoise Hill Resources) entered a joint venture with the Myanmar government to develop vast copper deposits beneath the earth. The mine is now owned jointly by the Myanmar government, a Myanmar military-owned company and Wanbao Mining, part of Norinco, a Chinese state-owned conglomerate that manufactures weapons.

The report decries a lack of transparency at every stage, from the lack of public consultation to a failure to disclose environmental risks to the “opaque sale of assets” that has not been explained by the entities involved. It warns that breaches of business rules and regulations have been tolerated by authorities.

“When business operations breach law with impunity it encourages further illegal conduct and human rights abuses,” the report says. “It is essential that governments ensure transparency and accountability to prevent a cycle of corporate crimes and human rights abuses”.

The publication of the report comes as Myanmar is hoping to be accepted to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), an international scheme that seeks to ensure deals done to extract oil, gas or mineral resources are open to scrutiny. 

“We hope the findings of the report are taken up by the EITI Board and that the government of Myanmar is asked to demonstrate its commitment to transparency by making details of the Monywa project sale and other information around contracts and company ownership public,” said lead author Meghna Abraham, deputy director of global thematic issues at Amnesty International.

Countries that are members of EITI are seen as a safer bet for reputation-conscious international investors, and as Myanmar welcomes foreign competition, damaging accusations of rights abuses linked to investment could be a major barrier to the county reaping greater revenues from its natural riches.

Investment is ramping up in the offshore oil and gas sector, with new deals being signed for global firms like Royal Dutch Shell to explore for hydrocarbons off the coast. Onshore, however, many of Myanmar’s natural resources — which include gold and other metals, jade, rubies and vast tracts of untouched forests — are found in areas where the majority of the population belong to ethnic minorities. 

In northern Myanmar’s Kachin state, resources are seen as a driver of the ongoing violence between ethnic rebels and the government, which has flared up in recent months. Late last year, companies — whose identities are not released publicly — resumed using large-scale machinery to mine jade in Hpakant Township after a three-year hiatus. But recent clashes in the area, likely fueled by the jade trade, have forced many mines to close once again. 

A villager walks beside a drainage channel containing reddish-orange water which locals say comes from the S&K mine, part of the Monywa mining complex, in December 2012 (Credit: Amnesty International)

 

Civil Society’s Voice

Following Daw Khin Win’s shooting at the Letpadaung mine, a statement issued by the Myanmar Alliance for Transparency and Accountability (MATA), said the incident “hinders implementation of the EITI mechanism in Myanmar”.

The group, which was set up by local civil society organizations to manage their involvement in the EITI application process, said it would raise concerns about the government’s handling of the Letpadaung project.

“We recommend that when the EITI board considers Myanmar’s application to EITI they take into account the due diligence, accountability and transparency of the Government of Myanmar in handling this case,” the statement said.

And MATA’s voice is important. The EITI application calls for the country to create an “enabling environment” for civil society involvement in the process, and groups are able to cry foul if their concerns are not listened to, potentially derailing the application.

MATA technical advisor and steering committee member Wong Aung said that Letpadaung was just one case of activists facing difficulties when they challenge mining and other projects across Myanmar. Many have been prevented by local authorities from holding educational forums about EITI or other resource issues, he said.

“There are so many problems, but they are happening outside of Yangon and Naypyidaw. To hold training or workshops in the remote areas, we need permission,” said Wong Aung, also known for his work as director of the Shwe Gas Movement.

Activists have been jailed under laws limiting the right to protest or using trespassing laws, with the number of people in Myanmar’s jails considered political prisoners swelling over the past year.

Wong Aung warned that the international community could be “ambushed” by a government that may be taking part in EITI only to clean up its image and attract more investment, while continuing to stifle efforts toward accountability.

As for transparency, the Myanmar government had shared the details of some large-scale mining projects, Wong Aung said. But, despite encouragement to adopt a transparent approach ahead of EITI membership as a show of good faith, much information is still not available. 

Untouchables

Activists are especially concerned since many large projects are thought to be linked to powerful individuals or families. Even parliamentarians — many of whom have known links to business interests — have not been forced to disclose their assets. “The government tries to protect them,” Wong Aung said. “There is a big wall. We need to break it down.”

Win Myo Thu, director of local environmental group EcoDev, agreed that confronting vested interests would be the real test of the Myanmar government’s commitment to transparency. 

“So far, we’ve found that if something is wrong in the extractive industries, the government will try to solve the problem,” he said. “But if we try to touch the untouchable people, they are still above the law.”

Global Witness, a UK-based watchdog that is a member of EITI’s international board, is pushing for Myanmar’s government to take civil society participation in the EITI process seriously.

“If EITI delivers on its promise of prising open Myanmar’s extractive industries it could begin to redress the power imbalance between the elite that is currently benefiting and the rest of the population,” said Mike Davis, a senior advisor at Global Witness.

“But even in the best case scenario, EITI will not provide a silver bullet solution to the many injustices and abuses that have characterized Myanmar’s oil gas and mining industries for so long. It is a potential catalyst for a change and a milestone on the long road to genuine accountability,” said Davis.

“However those government officials, international donors and CSOs [civil society organizations] involved all risk generating or experiencing severe disappointment if they treat Myanmar’s EITI process as an end in itself,” he added.

Important to Myanmar’s success in applying to EITI is a report to be submitted to EITI next year by a multi-stakeholder panel comprised of NGOs and the government.

Win Myo Thu, a member of the panel, warned that civil society representatives would not baulk at using its position in the EITI process to ensure the government makes improvements.

“If we find there is so much injustice, if we feel we are manipulated by the government, we will stop EITI,” he said. 

“One accusation is the government just does it for legitimacy. If this is just part of their legitimacy plan, and there is no real engagement or transparency, including for these ‘untouchable’ people, then we have to reconsider.”

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Myanmar: Foreign mining companies colluding in serious abuses and illegality

Canadian and Chinese mining interests have profited from, and in some cases colluded with the Myanmar authorities in serious human rights abuses and illegal activity around the Monywa copper mine complex, which includes the notorious Letpadaung mine, Amnesty International said in a report released today.

 In December 2014 one woman died and several other people were injured when police opened fire on protestors at the Letpadaung site.

Open for Business? Corporate Crime and Abuses at Myanmar Copper Mine describes how large-scale forced evictions and serious pollution linked to the mine have destroyed livelihoods and exposed thousands of people to health risks. Community protests have been met with excessive force by police, including, on one occasion, the use of white phosphorous, a highly toxic and explosive substance. 

 

Amnesty International also found evidence of illegal activity including possible breaches of economic sanctions.  

 

“Myanmar offers the perfect storm of a rich natural resource base, a weak legal system and an economy dominated by military and special interests. The government has forcibly evicted people, crushed all attempts at peaceful protest and displayed a complete unwillingness to hold companies to account,” said Meghna Abraham, Amnesty International’s Corporate Crimes Researcher.

 

“The Monywa project is a cautionary tale on investment in Myanmar, where corporate projects are too often marked by abuses and communities are ripped apart in the pursuit of profit. Construction of the Letpadaung mine must be halted immediately until rights issues have been addressed.”

Amnesty International’s report includes evidence of:

Thousands of people forcibly evicted in the 1990s, in violation of international law,  to make way for investment by Canadian company Ivanhoe Mines (now Turquoise Hill Resources); the company knew their investment would lead to the evictions, yet did nothing. It profited from more than a decade of copper mining, carried out in partnership with Myanmar’s military government, without attempting to address the thousands left destitute.Thousands more people forcibly evicted since 2011 to make way for the Letpadaung mine, which is run by Chinese company Wanbao and Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings (UMEHL), the economic arm of the Myanmar military. Wanbao directly engaged in forced evictions, and colluded with the authorities, including by providing bulldozers to destroy crops. In November 2012 security forces used white phosphorous, a highly toxic explosive substance, in a deliberate attack on villagers and monks who were protesting the negative impacts of the Letpadaung mine. More than 100 people were injured, with some suffering horrific burns and lifelong disability. Part of the attack was launched from inside the Wanbao company compound.  The use of white phosphorous by the security forces against the protestors constituted torture – a crime under international law. In December 2014 one woman died and several other people were injured when police opened fire on protestors at the Letpadaung site. Protests against the mine have repeatedly been met by excessive use of force by police.Ivanhoe Mines was involved, through its Monywa investment, in the sale of copper to a “who’s-who” of the Myanmar military. These sales took place when economic sanctions were still in force. Ivanhoe lied publically about the copper sales, and its subsidiary may have breached UK economic sanctions. When Ivanhoe Mines divested from Myanmar it did so in a highly secretive process involving legal entities in the British Virgin Islands. Amnesty International’s investigation found evidence that Ivanhoe Mines and legal entities associated with the company may have breached Canadian and UK economic sanctions during the divestment. The organization is calling on Canada and the UK to initiate criminal investigations into the issue.The military-owned conglomerate UMEHL illegally operated a sulphuric acid factory linked to the Monywa mine for six years. When this was exposed, the factory was approved by the authorities, who made no attempt to take punitive action against UMEHL.

 

 “The people living around Monwya and Letpadaung have suffered more than two decades of abuse linked to the business operations of Canadian, Myanmar and now Chinese corporations. Investment can help Myanmar, but this project benefits the companies while harming the people,” said Meghna Abraham. 

 

Amnesty International calls for:

 

Investigations by Canada and China into the activities of Ivanhoe Mines and Wanbao in Myanmar.Canadian and UK authorities to investigate whether Ivanhoe Mines and related legal entities breached Canadian and/or UK economic sanctions. All construction of the Letpadaung mine to be halted until the abuses are addressed.Investigations by the Myanmar authorities into the police response to protests at Letpadaung, including the use of while phosphorous and the role played by Wanbao in allowing the police to use a company compound to launch part of the attack. The Myanmar authorities to provide adequate compensation and resettlement to people who were forcibly evicted and to reform its legal framework to better protect rights of mine-affected communities.

 

Background

 

The Monywa project comprises the Sabetaung and Kyisintaung (S&K) and the Letpadaung copper mines. S&K has been operational since the 1980s. Letpadaung is under construction.

 

In 1996 Canadian company Ivanhoe Mines Ltd. entered into a joint venture with a Myanmar state company, Mining Enterprise No. 1 (ME1), to set up the Myanmar Ivanhoe Copper Company Limited (MICCL), in which both held a 50 per cent interest. MICCL operated the S&K mine.

 

In 2007 Ivanhoe Mines decided to divest from Myanmar and established a third-party-Trust to which its Myanmar assets were transferred.

 

In 2010 it was announced that China North Industries Corporation (NORINCO) and UMEHL had entered into an agreement about the Monywa project, which includes both S&K and Letpadaung mines. Subsidiaries of Wanbao Mining Ltd (owned by NORINCO) operate both mines today The process by which the ME1-Ivanhoe Mines assets transferred to the China-Myanmar military partnership of Wanbao-UMHEL has never been disclosed.

 

Amnesty International approached the companies named in this report for comments on the allegations against them. Where responses were provided, these have been incorporated in the report.

 

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Posted by on in Business
 
 
The Balthazar Building, Bank Street, central Yangon
The once grand Balthazar Building on Bank Street in central Yangon

Shepherding a flock of tourists through the traffic-congested streets of Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon, a local tour guide shouts over the roar of oncoming vehicles.

Here, on Bogolay Zay Street amid the moss-covered, weather-stained, early-20th Century facades in the historic centre of the city, the history of the colonial buildings that make up old Rangoon, once the capital of Burma, begins to come into focus.

To the right, the former residence of famed Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda; to the left, one can still see the signage for the Young Women's Christian Association, circa 1902.

In the distance is the city's most iconic building - The Secretariat - where General Aung San, the metaphorical father of modern Myanmar and actual father of Nobel laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, was assassinated in 1947.

Christian Association Yangon

"This street is highly important as a historical centre because there are only three modern buildings on it," said Aung Thurane, the 30-year-old guide.

He was explaining that preservation is a major achievement in a city where historic infrastructure has enjoyed little legislative protection.

"Hopefully, these will be safe," he said.

Heritage 'destroyed'

Other heritage buildings in the city have not been as fortunate. Developers and landowners made money building larger and newer structures, while most of the city's infrastructure went into disrepair when the military government took power in 1962.

According to the Yangon Heritage Trust (YHT), as much as 35% of downtown Yangon was destroyed between 1990 and 2011 to make way for new development projects. That's about 1,800 buildings.

The Secretariat BuildingThe Secretariat is a key feature of Yangon's architectural heritage
Apartment building on Sule Pagoda Rd
Heritage 'destroyed'

With many of those projects built on the cheap, however, conservationists worry that much of the city's heritage is being destroyed for little benefit in return.

"Our vision is something that we cannot expect from everyone," said Daw Moe Moe Lwin, director of the YHT.

Currently, just 189 buildings throughout all of Yangon are protected by the municipal government, while urban planners do not even have a firm definition of what a heritage site is, she said.

While municipal and regional authorities have sought to preserve historic Yangon following the country's transition to a quasi-civilian government in 2011, lack of co-ordinated leadership on the issue has led to further, albeit fewer, demolitions, she added.

"We used to propose to the government… that there should be a task force including the stakeholders, the NGOs [non-governmental organisations], the intellectuals, as well as officials, to manage or control the assets. This hasn't happened, though," she said.

But the YHT has been called in to consult on heritage matters and has helped prevent the destruction of iconic buildings in some cases, she said.

Yangon skylineBigger, more profitable buildings have been replacing Yangon's older properties
Man views Yangon construction
Legal challenges

There are other threats to Yangon's heritage. Confusing leasing agreements bury the revitalisation plans for well-known public buildings in red tape, and opaque private property ownership rules prevent signatories from investing in the upkeep of their buildings.

"The main hurdle that we're facing here in Yangon is around legal initiative," said Rupert Mann, senior programme officer at YHT.

Landowners will often let buildings become dilapidated in the hope of gaining government approval to partner with developers and demolish them, making way for new, more profitable structures, he said.

"As a result, the landowner refuses to allow the upkeep of the building because the longer they can make the building look like it's going to fall over the more they believe that they can convince the YCDC to allow them to demolish it," he said.

"Meanwhile, the tenants are sitting in there. They are unable to pay for a new roof, or upgrade the facade, or even fix broken utilities or stairs."

Built in 1914, The High Court is one of the iconic buildings of Yangon slated for rehabilitationA revamp is planned for Yangon's High Court, built in 1914
Old Pegu Club, the Victorian-style Gentlemen's clubThe dilapidated Old Pegu club, once a stylish haunt for British diplomats
Unique architecture

Yangon is seen as a unique architectural city, having served as a major trading hub for the ethnic Indians that inhabited it in the early 20th Century.

Much of the architecture in downtown Yangon dates from the period of British rule which lasted from 1824 through to the creation of Burma in 1948.

According to conservationists, city officials should showcase Yangon's heritage to increase its appeal, much like Penang and Singapore have done.

Black and white image of Yangon

Please turn on JavaScript. Media requires JavaScript to play.

Jonah Fisher reports on the fight to preserve Yangon's colonial architecture

"It was a major centre of international exchange," said Bonnie Burnham, president of the World Monument Fund. "Famous writers and famous people lived here and wrote about it, and so it has a legacy that is completely unique.

"I also think in 40 or 50 years, if that is successful, Yangon will be… the Charleston or the Boston of the Orient in terms of having utilised its history as part of its vision for itself in the future."

With the downtown cityscape consisting mainly of inhabited older buildings in poor states of repair, the issue for the government has become striking a balance between preserving the city's heritage and promoting modernisation, said U Toe Aung of the Yangon City Development Committee.

"Both of these have to be harmonised," he said.

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Thursday, March 05, 2015
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