The Yangon Heritage Trust
The Yangon Heritage Trust (YHT) was established in 2012 as a centre of excellence in urban built and cultural heritage management. Since then YHT has led the conservation effort in Yangon and set the standard for good heritage practice.
YHT oversaw the creation and implementation of Yangon’s first Conservation Management Plan at the Secretariat site (see Online Annexe 01) and has undertaken numerous training and capacity building exercises for local architects, builders and engineers. The Trust has had significant early success in ensuring that the conservation of Yangon’s unique heritage is incorporated into a vision for the city and plans for its development.
Currently, YHT is the only dedicated body looking at urban heritage issues in Yangon and how they relate to making it a modern and liveable city through good urban planning and physical conservation. The Trust aims to ensure that Yangon can modernise without losing its unique heritage. Although the Trust is not a statutory authority it provides advice to relevant government bodies when requested. Currently YHT is providing support to over 65 building conservation projects in addition to its many advocacy and research tasks.
The organisation has a dedicated staff of around 30 local people as well as full-time and consulting international specialists, a local Board of Directors and an International Advisory Group. It falls under the leadership of Chairman and historian U Thant Myint-U and Director and architect Daw Moe Moe Lwin.
The early mission of YHT was to raise awareness about the city’s heritage assets and to encourage authorities to protect them. This advocacy gained significant traction at a Union and Regional level within the new administration of U Thein Sein. The Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC) moved away from supporting demolition of heritage buildings and several large projects with major heritage impacts were halted.
From mid-2013, YHT became increasingly focussed on broader urban planning issues. This expanding scope came out of a realisation that, if the conservation of Yangon’s built and cultural heritage was to succeed, the economic and social benefits must be clear to leaders and the public. As an early step, YHT undertook a project funded by the government of New Zealand to understand what residents value and dislike about their local neighbourhood. The results informed the drafting of a vision for the city completed in early 2014 and this formed the basis for YHT’s future work. Around this time, YCDC and YHT staff undertook a series of trainings and studies funded by the European Union.
From the outset, YHT has focussed heavily on producing the city’s first comprehensive heritage list and proposed conservation areas. The first conservation area to be clearly identified (based on the assessment of over 3,000 individual properties) was the Downtown Conservation Area. Due to its high concentration of significant heritage places and the high development pressures there, the downtown was the first area to receive attention. The Trust continues its inventory process across the city and as of mid-2016 has covered 7,000 properties and around 30% of the wider historic city. More than 30 proposed conservation areas have also been identified.
In early 2014, YHT drafted a set of proposed first generation regulatory tools. These included a Yangon Heritage Conservation law, a heritage planning framework and guidelines for managing change to heritage places and conservation areas. In drafting these tools, the Trust worked with local and international experts from a wide variety of fields taking the best of this advice and tailoring it to the local context. The Trust also learned from the experiences of other post-colonial 19th and 20th century cities internationally to ensure proposed systems avoided mistakes made in other countries.
YHT has assisted in laying the foundations for a new sector of Yangon’s construction industry through training the first generation of specialist heritage tradespeople. This work will continue into 2017 through a programme funded by the Australian government.
Since late 2014, YHT has increasingly seen the need for a single document presenting the organisation’s vision and proposed first generation actions towards that vision. Through the Trust’s community engagement it became clear that this was also something local businesses needed to invest more securely in conservation-led development. The Trust is now advocating for a comprehensive master plan to be drafted for Yangon with the conservation of the city’s unique built and cultural heritage at its core.
In this Yangon Heritage Strategy, YHT puts forward a vision for Yangon and a first-steps action plan for the implementation of that vision. Working with local partners and government bodies, the Trust has assisted Yangon to achieve what no other city of its scale and economic importance has in the Asian region – avoiding the first wave of unregulated demolitions that tore through so many other historic cities.
Government support for conservation, good urban planning and sustainable development is in place and time for action has been bought. Work now begins on making Yangon Asia’s most liveable city. This will involve continuing public advocacy and awareness raising, working closely with government and business leaders and ensuring that Yangon’s heritage places are protected for the social, cultural and economic benefit of its current inhabitants and future generations.