Renovation tours at Yangon’s Secretariat building.
A behind-the-scenes look at the restoration of one of Myanmar’s most important colonial-era institutions.
Few buildings are as central to the political history of modern Myanmar as the Secretariat in Yangon. Built from 1889 to 1905, it’s been the locus of the British colonial bureaucracy, the site of national tragedy, and a symbol of military neglect.
When the country’s generals shifted their capital to Naypyitaw in 2005, they shuttered the moldering complex, leaving behind a small police force to make sure nobody entered. There were rumors the huge site—it occupies an entire downtown block, with the building alone covering 37,000 square meters—would be sold off to Chinese developers. But the winds of change that began blowing through Myanmar in 2011 brought new hope. The site was tendered the following year to a local company, Anawmar Art Group, that plans to turn the Secretariat into a cultural complex, replete with a museum, galleries, restaurants, and cafés. Serviced offices will help to pay the bills.
While completion is tentatively scheduled for 2020, it’s now possible to go behind the barbed wire and walk corridors that once echoed with the clacking of typewriters as colonial clerks hammered out reports for Calcutta and London. Late last year, Asia Tours Myanmar began offering daily “renovation tours” through the sprawling complex. The guides’ knowledge and English proficiency are serviceable enough, but the Secretariat is so awe-inspiring, both in its architectural ambition and historical significance, that it requires little elaboration.
There are moments of real poignancy; the tour begins with the laying of a red rose beside a cenotaph with the names of seven politicians—including independence hero Bogyoke Aung San, the father of Aung San Suu Kyi—who were gunned down at the behest of their rivals in the Secretariat’s west wing on July 19, 1947. The meeting room in which this tragedy unfolded was given a cheap renovation by the junta, and on my visit it was slowly being unpicked to reveal the original walls, floor, and ceiling, once hidden for decades. Carpenters were also busy restoring the wooden stairway that the assassins scaled before bursting in and catching their victims by surprise.
Another highlight is the main entrance hall in the southern wing, one of the most spectacular parts of the complex. Once topped by a grand dome, the three-story atrium is now covered with glass; its whitewashed walls glow in a flood of light. The double-spiral staircase, painted a rich green and with finials of Queen Victoria, is a joy to ascend; a forbidden pleasure for so many years, this opportunity alone makes the tour more than worthwhile.
Clockwise from top: A wing of the Secretariat building; on a guided tour through the complex; inside the main entrance hall.