Inside Burma - part 1: Burma aims to leapfrog South-east Asian neighbours after fresh beginning

Four years after the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma is at a crossroads. No longer a pariah state, but hardly in from the cold. In a three-part series starting today, Peter Popham uncovers the truth about a country torn between its past and the future

The reversal of fortunes is remarkable. Week after week Thailand has been in turmoil, red shirts and yellow shirts on the streets of the capital locked in bitter dispute which no-one seemed able to defuse and few to understand. After half a century of dramatic progress, the nation suddenly finds itself dumped in a tight political cul de sac.

Meanwhile, across their long shared border, Burma, so recently the region’s pariah, basks in the sort of accolades which formerly seemed Thailand’s by right. It successfully staged the South-east Asian Games last year and this year, for the first time, holds the rotating chairmanship of the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN). The international flights into Rangoon and Mandalay are crammed with foreign businessmen and tourists.

The disparity in the neighbours’ living standards is still glaring, but while Thailand’s wealth has resulted in the historic features of its capital city disappearing into steel and concrete canyons, Rangoon retains abundant charm along with its Buddhist and colonial buildings. And money isn’t everything: as George Steinberg, America’s doyen of Asian studies, point out, South-east Asia’s former ugly duckling has some innate advantages. Unlike Thailand, it has learned to manage without a monarchy, he wrote in The Irrawaddy, the Burmese monthly magazine. “In spite of their shared Buddhist heritages,” he wrote, “Burman society is far more egaliatarian.” Thanks in part to a meritocratic military, “social classes among Burmans became far more permeable and fluid than in Thailand.”

Everybody loves a country on the way up, and Burma today is that country. On the west coast, in Arakan state, beach resorts including the most famous one, Ngapali, have long, pristine beaches and the sort of rough-and-ready appeal that is only a vague memory in Phuket or Koh Samui. As the quasi-democratic administration of President Thein Sein cuts more provisional peace deals with its ethnic adversaries, the tour operators who enjoyed a huge bounce in their Burmese business between 2012 and 2013 are spreading their wings and taking package tourists beyond the tidy confines of Bagan, Mandalay and Inle Lake. Within a few years, if the peace momentum is maintained, one can imagine travellers being allowed to meet many more of the dozens of minority tribes holed up in Burma’s uplands.

Yet, as in Thailand, all the good stuff contains the seeds of its own destruction. In Arakan, developers are already elbowing local populations out of the way, preparing to pounce on the most beautiful beach-side properties where they will build international-standard resorts that will quickly rob the coast of its character. Improved roads into the wilderness will accelerate the extraction of teak and gems, a process that already, under military rule, has done much to rob Burma’s hinterland of its wealth and beauty.

In light of the way Bangkok has drowned in concrete, the single place most at risk of speedy ruination is Rangoon. No longer Burma’s capital, that honour having been hijacked by preposterous Naypyidaw – “Abode of Kings” – midway between it and Mandalay, it is still the commercial capital, by far Burma’s biggest, most dynamic and important city. It is also, for an Asian city of five million or more people, uniquely unspoiled. And now, perhaps in the nick of time, a group of local architects and Rangoon lovers have sprung up to defend it. 

The city was named Yangon, “End of Strife”, by King Alaungpaya when he conquered it in 1755, but after its annexation by Britain it became an archetypal colonial city, only its two great Buddhist stupas reminding visitors where they were. The alien, colonial provenance of the decaying Victorian ministries, banks, schools and the rest has made it harder to argue for their preservation.

“Urban conservation has never been part of our education,” points out Moe Moe Lwin, the female architect who heads the recently formed Yangon Heritage Trust, “and many architects say, ‘What are you doing with those colonial buildings? They have nothing to do with us!’ Older people were taught all their lives that everything colonial is bad, and that’s hard to change.”

Yet, as the Trust’s work of documentation reveals, old Rangoon is far more than colonial domination writ large. Here are the buildings where Burma’s currency was invented, where its great leader Aung San was assassinated, where Armenian, Chinese and Baghdadi Jewish immigrants sank roots and built extraordinary palaces.

One building which would probably channel more Burmese rage about the humiliations of the past than the rest put together is the old Pegu Club, where the colonial elite met to sink their gin and limes and exchange rancorous gossip about the natives, just like the club bores and soaks in George Orwell’s Burmese Days. Yet shorn of those odious connotations the club, though now badly decayed, appears for what it is, one of the few colonial buildings whose design and construction acknowledge that it is in the Tropics rather than the City of London.

Its potential is beyond doubt. Moe Moe Lwin said: “It could be converted into a hotel, perhaps incorporating a modern hotel building in the compound, which is quite large, and using the old building as a lobby, dining and bar area.” And the Pegu Club Cocktail, invented by the club’s legendary American barman Harry Craddock, would ride again.

The Heritage Trust has delineated a couple of square kilometres in the centre within which its goal is to preserve, refurbish and find new uses for what remains.

Many conversations one has in Burma today involve the word ‘leapfrog’. Whether the subject is mobile phones, industrialisation or education, Burmese people have grasped the fact that having been for so long so far behind the curve of innovation gives them the paradoxical advantage that they can jump numerous, laborious stages taken by other countries and wind up ahead. From having the world’s slowest internet, for example, they may soon have speeds among the fastest.

One useful form the leapfrog might take is learning from other’s mistakes. Could Burma create a thriving commercial capital in Rangoon which did not sacrifice its historic identity to its success, which retained its human scale and the best and most idiosyncratic of its old buildings? The foreign tourists would certainly appreciate it. And even the locals might learn to see its value.

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