Myanmar rising – how democracy is changing Yangon’s skyline

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Myanmar rising – how democracy is changing Yangon's skyline
Development officials discuss building works in downtown Yangon / © David Levene

As the country opens up to the outside world, the old capital has become the latest playground for international developers, putting the city’s historic fabric under pressure. Will its people be able to keep up?

“Premium life for your dream,” announces a billboard beneath a new tower of serviced apartments in the heaving, traffic-choked city of Yangon. “Play in infinite luxury,” says another featuring a couple lolling in a pool on their balcony, with a badly photoshopped pagoda twinkling in the background.

Along with the arrival of democracy and the first civilian government since 1962, Myanmar is also embracing the novelty of unbridled speculative development. Six months on from the election that swept the Nobel prize-winning campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi’s party to power, the skyline of Yangon is bristling with cranes and concrete frames as a clutch of new towers rises above the mouldering rooftops of the old colonial centre. With the city’s population set to double to 10 million over the next two decades, flocks of foreign investors are circling, eager to reap the spoils of Asia’s “final frontier market”. The fragile historic fabric, along with the people it houses, has never been under such pressure.

“With every new building bidding for the best view of the Shwedagon Pagoda, we’re not going to have any views left,” says Daw Moe Moe Lwin, director of the Yangon Heritage Trust (YHT), a campaign group founded in 2012 by architects and historians keen to save south-east Asia’s last surviving colonial core. It has been an uphill battle in a place that still doesn’t have a formalised planning system, and where many public buildings have been swiftly privatised in deals that allowed the generals of the outgoing dictatorship to fill their pockets in the process. […]