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.

DestinAsian - - DEPARTMENTS - BY THOMAS KEAN Tours run four times daily. En­trance fee US$6. For book­ings, call 95/942-727-3018 or email info@asi­a­toursmyan­mar.com.

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.

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