A view of the Secretariat in 1910, just a few years after it was built.
Wikimedia Commons A view of the Secretariat in 1910, just a few years after it was built.
The Secretariat Building located in downtown Rangoon, Burma.
Flickr member McKay Savage, licensed for use under Creative Commons The Secretariat Building located in downtown Rangoon, Burma.

Burma is Asia’s second poorest country, but the country’s economy is on the brink of change now that many Western nations are lifting their sanctions following a shift in Burmese leadership. New leaders are promoting growth through reforms such as releasing political prisoners and easing civil, political, and media-related restrictions. With these reforms comes economic growth and new development, and with new development comes demolition.

A country practically frozen in time, many Burmese are reluctant to see architectural icons torn down and replaced with modern buildings—and understandably so. Colonial-era structures cover downtown Rangoon, most of which have fallen into disrepair. Underneath the soot and decay, though, there are still remarkable buildings symbolic of an era and a peoples’ history. Brendan Brady reports for Time magazine:

"Decades of economic stasis has helped preserve the core of what is today the largest collection of late 19th century and early 20th century urban architecture anywhere in Southeast Asia. The reopening of Rangoon promises much-needed renewal but, conservationists worry, could hasten the destruction of these remarkable structures."

Residents in favor of preserving the country’s history say that while they hope to protect the remaining colonial buildings from the wrecking ball, their broader goal is to preserve the overall feel of the city—particularly the formal capital Rangoon, local architect Amelie Chai told Agence France-Presse last month in the video below.

“We need to think about how we can encourage contemporary architecture that will work together with the existing heritage buildings,” Chai says. “I think that makes it a much more vibrant and exciting kind of city rather than just preserving areas, not allowing any change to happen.”

After nearly 50 years under military rule, the country is now transitioning to a semicivilian government, and many Western countries have taken note. “The country is being trumpeted in business circles as one of the world’s last virgin markets, with vast stores of natural resources still ripe for the taking,” Time’s Brady writes.

The change in government is likely to stimulate an economic boom as investors pour money into the country, but if that change happens too quickly Burma’s identity is in danger of getting swallowed up by skyscrapers and flashing lights.

Thant Myint Oo is the founder of the Yangon Heritage Trust, which helped compile a list of more than 180 buildings to be recognized as heritage sites. The city council also worked on the list, yet the designation as heritage sites offers the buildings no legal protection, according to AFP. The list includes 189 neoclassical-style buildings such as the Secretariat, where the general considered responsible for freeing the Burmese from British rule was assassinated in 1947; the High Court; and the Strand Hotel, once host to famous guests Rudyard Kipling and George Orwell.

"We have enough left that Yangon can still be a very special and unique city," Oo told AFP. “But the fear is also that in five years' time it could look like any other Asian city with skyscrapers and traffic jams and not much else to distinguish it."