Yangon boasts one of the most spectacular and diverse urban landscapes: famous Buddhist buildings like the Shwedagon Pagoda, Anglican and Roman Catholic Cathedrals, Baptist and Methodist churches, over a dozen Sunni and Shia mosques, Hindu, Parsi and Sikh temples, and even a Jewish synagogue and an Armenian church. The city retains one of the most complete ensembles of colonial architecture in the world and is endowed with splendid parks and lakes. Long the centre of Myanmar’s political, economic and cultural life, Yangon has played a critical role in the country’s history. It was in Yangon that the Myanmar people first become ‘modern’ and interacted with the world and it was through this process of exchange that Yangon’s history became internationally linked to the history. Visitors from Mahatma Gandhi to Graham Greene travelled to Yangon alongside an array of historical figures, from the last emperor of India, Bahadur Shah Zafar, to the Chilean poet and Nobel Laureate Pablo Neruda. These layers of history are still evident in the architectural legacies of the city.
Today, Yangon’s built heritage is at risk from decades of neglect and, more pressingly, a new wave of intense pressure for rapid urban development. An immediate need exists for a comprehensive urban plan that integrates Yangon’s existing urban fabric with the needs of a rapidly developing city. Century-old buildings in the downtown area are being demolished with alarming speed. As new structures rise without a regulatory vision, intact architectural blocks and iconic views of the Shwedagon Pagoda are being lost.
It was to address this growing concern that Yangon Heritage Trust (YHT) was founded in 2012 by Dr Thant Myint-U and a group of like-minded architects, business people, historians, and others dedicated to preserving the city’s unique architectural legacy. The idea for the organisation began three months earlier, following initial talks between Dr Thant Myint-U and the Chief Minister of Yangon Region U Myint Swe and then Industry Minister U Soe Thane (now Minister in the President’s Office), where Dr Thant Myint-U outlined the urgency of working on Yangon preservation.
The June 2012 conference “Towards a Conservation Strategy for Yangon in the 21st Century” united national and international experts, civil society leaders, and government ministers, and marked the start of the Trust’s activities as an organization. An International Advisory Group of urban planners, conservationists, and architects now supports the Trust by facilitating dialogue with local experts and interested parties.
The Trust established its credentials and explained its objectives with President Thein Sein during a meeting in February 2013. Dr. Thant Myint-U provided a presentation on how preservation efforts could be integrated into a wider urban planning process, why this was urgent, and how this could help make Yangon into one of the most beautiful and livable cities in the region, with tremendous economic benefits.
In the months that followed, the Yangon Heritage Trust began to broaden its area of focus from simply the preservation of historic buildings (primarily in downtown Yangon). YHT recognised that preservation could only properly take place within a wider urban planning process and began discussions with city authorities on how best to connect preservation to urban planning.