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Will development overshadow Myanmar’s rich cultural history?

April 15, 2014 at 6:26 PM EST
There is no urban landscape like Yangon in the world. Largely isolated from the rest of the world for decades, Myanmar's capital city has been frozen in time, filled with temples and grand buildings from the colonial era. But as the country embraces a more open society, how will it manage to preserve its past while building its future? Chief arts correspondent Jeffrey Brown reports.
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GWEN IFILL: Now part two of Jeffrey Brown’s look at Myanmar, the country formerly known as Burma.

After years of turmoil, the military government is moving toward political reform. But, as the country begins to open up to the outside world, there’s a new concern: how development could overshadow its architectural and archaeological past.

That’s the subject of Jeff’s report tonight, which also marks the beginning of a new series, one we call Culture at Risk. We will explore the impact of war, climate change, neglect and more on cultural artifacts around the world.

JEFFREY BROWN: The afternoon rush hour in Yangon, as workers board water taxis for the commute home.

On the streets, food vendors serve tea and noodles. Buddhist monks in their maroon robes are everywhere. And the ancient Shwedagon Pagoda, hundreds of temples, statues and stupas, remains the country’s most important shrine.

Yangon, the city once known as Rangoon, is often said to be frozen in time, the result of a military regime that kept this country largely isolated from the outside world for more than 50 years. But that’s changing now, and quickly, and a key question here is how to preserve something of the past while moving into a 21st century future.

THANT MYINT-U, Yangon Heritage Trust: There’s no urban landscape like this left anywhere in the world.

JEFFREY BROWN: Thant Myint U, a Harvard-educated historian, is head of the Yangon Heritage Trust. As Myanmar opens up, he says, the nation’s very sense of itself, told in part through its buildings, is at stake.

THANT MYINT-U: What we have now is a physical landscape starting to change, but also this opportunity to remember this history, and to try to begin to save what we can before it’s too late.

JEFFREY BROWN: Downtown Yangon is filled with grand buildings, many from its British-ruled colonial-era, the end of the 19th century until World War II.

The huge Secretariat, for example, housed the British administration, but was also the site of the assassination of Burma’s independence hero, Aung San, father of Aung San Suu Kyi.

Some buildings have been restored, like the Strand Hotel, where Rudyard Kipling and George Orwell stayed, and the Rowe & Co., the city’s first department store, soon to open as a bank headquarters.

THANT MYINT-U: I guess, for these 34 years, it hasn’t really received any attention.

JEFFREY BROWN: But many others, like the Balthazar, have stood in a state of neglect for decades.

THANT MYINT-U: So you have this kind of dystopian world here.

JEFFREY BROWN: Oh, wow.

And today serve as home to squatters who live among rats and squalor.

THANT MYINT-U: And this is really a building that people shouldn’t be living in.

JEFFREY BROWN: Hundreds of buildings have already been torn down to make way for new ones, and Thant Myint-U and his colleagues are working to preserve what they can.

What started with the plight of a handful of buildings has become a larger quest for smart growth.

THANT MYINT-U: The last thing that I would want to see is a sort of sanitized tourist zone that’s good for just tourists and some rich Burmese, with five-star hotels and very expensive restaurants, so I think trying to get the economics of conservation right, seeing how we cannot just preserve the buildings, but really try to keep intact some of these communities that have been here for generations.

JEFFREY BROWN: Some of this history is very complicated. Yangon has a colonial past and a lot of people, I would think, don’t really want to remember it.

THANT MYINT-U: No one has a positive view of colonialism as colonialism, but what I try to say is that this colonial era landscape downtown is also where the Burmese people first learned to be modern. It’s where Burma’s greatest anti-colonial politicians, anti-colonial writers, others, musicians, artists, others lived and worked, and so it’s important for our history.

JEFFREY BROWN: This remains an extremely poor country, where most people live through subsistence farming. But, as the military government has relaxed its grip on the economy, investment is pouring in from Asia, as well as Europe and the U.S.

And Yangon’s population is expected to quadruple to 10 million in the next 25 years. The demand for office space and housing is exploding, and rents are already skyrocketing, especially downtown, where new buildings sit, uneasily at times, next to old.

JEFFREY BROWN: This is tearing down what was here, which was…

MOE ZAT MONE, Unique Asia Gate, Ltd: Yes, I feel a little bit sorry for an older building that has been torn down and…

JEFFREY BROWN: You feel a little sorry?

MOE ZAT MONE: Yes, but I got no choice. So, it has got to be done.

JEFFREY BROWN: Twenty-nine-year-old Moe Zat Mone oversees operations at two construction companies that operate around the country. A native of Yangon, educated in England, he’s eager to be part of change and growth in Myanmar.

MOE ZAT MONE: According to the architecture, this is what we call urban boutique.

JEFFREY BROWN: Urban boutique hotel?

He showed us a model for a new luxury hotel, planned as three stories for now, but depending on what investors want, possibly as high as 15, all part, he says, of developing a modern city.

MOE ZAT MONE: But we need more infrastructure, such as more hotels, hospitals, schools, and more service apartments for the office rental.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, are you optimistic that Yangon can be a livable city, even as it grows?

MOE ZAT MONE: Absolutely.

I think it, come in five years’ time, I think this country — I mean, this city will be able to compete with our neighbor’s country, South Asia.

JEFFREY BROWN: Come in five years’ time? Well, many are already coming, some touring in hot air balloons.

And here in Bagan, 300 miles Northwest of Yangon, that raises other questions for the future. Bagan is an archaeological wonder, capital of a former Burmese kingdom and said to contain the highest concentration of Buddhist architecture of any place in the world, several thousand pagodas, and temples in a variety of shapes, styles and sizes, some dating back more than 1,000 years.

One issue here is sheer numbers: How many tourists, and hotels and buses to accommodate them, can the site hold? Of course, if you’re a carriage driver, like Myo Han, the more tourists, the better for you and your children. His youngest is finishing high school soon, the first in the family to do so, with the hope of becoming a tour guide.

Myo Han himself was once a farmer.

MYO HAN, (through interpreter): A farmer’s life is very hard and poor. Driving a horse carriage is easier. I can make much more money.

JEFFREY BROWN: Another issue here: highly controversial restoration and rebuilding practices.

So the monastery was there?

U MYO NUNT, Department of Archaeology, Bagan: Yes, it’s monastery complex.

JEFFREY BROWN: A monastery complex?

U Myo Nunt served until recently as deputy director of the Department of Archaeology in Bagan. He explained that, as earthquakes took their toll over the years, much restoration was done piecemeal, and not by internationally recognized standards.

But these are Buddhist shrines, he points out, seen as places of places of worship.

U MYO NUNT (through interpreter): People put gold coating or lime wash on the pagodas to make them look nice, thinking that will bring them good karma.

JEFFREY BROWN: Other practices, such as the building of faux historic pagodas, this one by a former top general, also raised concerns, all of this leading UNESCO to deny Bagan World Heritage designation.

There is now internationally sanctioned work being done here. We watched an effort at one of Bagan’s oldest and most important structures, the 12th century Ananda Temple, to remove layers of white lime coatings. It’s a $22 million project being financed by the government of India, and overseen by Indian experts.

At the Ministry of Culture, as young people rehearsed traditional dances, another kind of cultural preservation, Deputy Minister Sanda Khin insisted that a new awareness had taken hold.

SANDA KHIN, Deputy Minister of Culture, Myanmar (through interpreter): Earlier generations tried to preserve their precious monuments in their own way. At the time, the study of archaeological practices wasn’t widespread, so they used their own traditional ways.

But, for the last 20 years, with the assistance of UNESCO, we have learned the proper ways of preservation that are in accordance with international norms.

JEFFREY BROWN: Today, Myanmar wrestles with many challenges: longstanding ethnic tensions, an uncertain move to democracy, and a jolt into the global marketplace.

Add one more: how to manage and preserve part of its past, even while building its future.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you can see more photos of the stunning architecture of Bagan. That’s on Art Beat.