All photographs by Marisse Caine.
Sometimes cities are planned down to every last corner, with neat grids and clearly divided zones. And sometimes a city’s future grows up organically around its past, history and aspiration tangling like vines at the heart of a rainforest.
One sees all this from the ballroom of Royal Orchid Sheraton Hotel, nestled on the banks of Bangkok’s Chao Phraya river. Below us, guests at the hotel’s swimming pool gaze out onto the waterfront, watching boats ferry tourists to the Grand Palace just a mile upriver. On the opposite bank, a Louis Vuitton store—virtually identical to its cousin outside Marina Bay Sands—glitters above the water, sunlight winking off its glass-and-steel facade onto the fading docks below. If you look closely, you can spot a few shacks peeping from the shadows.
I couldn’t have asked for a more apt setting for my interview with Thant Myint-U, an eminent Burmese historian, writer, and conservationist, when we met for a quick chat at the ASEAN Youth Entrepreneurs’ Carnival in Bangkok earlier this month. Amongst other formidable achievements, including lectureships at Ivy League universities and stints at the UN Secretariat, he founded the Yangon Heritage Trust, a non-profit organisation dedicated to preserving the unique architectural landscape of the former Burmese capital.
We sat down for a chat about what two former British colonies from the same region, with radically divergent post-independence paths, might have to learn from each other about heritage, history education, and why the past matters so much to the future.
Sophie: Just to start off: you were born in New York, grew up in Myanmar and Thailand, and then educated in America and the UK. How has such a fragmented upbringing shaped your appreciation of Myanmar’s heritage?
Thant Myint-U: That’s a good question. I guess I never thought of myself as being anything other than Burmese. Because I grew up in a Burmese household, my parents had a very strong sense of Burmese identity. And in the 2000s, when I began going back to Myanmar more often for work, the thing that I noticed was how unique some aspects of Myanmar’s culture and material culture and intangible culture were, and how under threat some of it seemed to be.
S: Your vision for the Yangon Heritage Trust involves ‘promoting and integrating Yangon’s unique urban heritage into a 21st-century vision of Yangon as one of Asia’s most liveable cities’. Could you tell us a bit more about this?
T: The work we do at the Yangon Heritage Trust is very much focused on preserving the buildings in downtown Yangon, trying to find the right kind of financial means to renovate and protect them.
For me, I initially just wanted these buildings not to be torn down, because this was happening at an alarming rate. About 1,000 buildings had been demolished in the last 10 years, and we still had around 1,000 left. Initially, I wanted to lobby the government; I was working with them at the time to just stop the demolitions and see what was possible. But the more I worked on the issue, the more I realised that it wasn’t just the buildings. We have these amazing neighbourhoods and communities. People of Chinese descent, Indian descent, people from all over Myanmar, places with great global historical importance … It wasn’t just the buildings but the history that needed to be recovered, and also these communities that we should encourage to remain intact, if possible.
I talked to a lot of other like-minded people, and we felt like this had to be part of a broader urban planning vision as well. And so we started thinking about what we wanted to see in Yangon’s future, because no one had thought about these things. Yangon has to modernise; we want modern airports, ports, infrastructure, Internet, everything else. But we wanted to integrate both the physical heritage that was left, and think about the rest of the heritage that was there, and how one works with that.
S: I think a big source of tension here in Singapore is that we’re still trying to figure out how to value heritage in and of its own sake, while balancing that with the very understandable impulse to monetise it. And of course, this means managing the risk of determining what is ‘valuable’ history according to what brings in the most tourist dollars. Is this something you’re encountering in Myanmar?
T: Yes, absolutely. I mean, the situation is obviously very different in Myanmar; Yangon is a much poorer place, so we still have to give some priority to expanding the market and creating jobs, because that’s desperately needed for so many people. And in a way, because Yangon is still such a poor city, gentrification is not such a big problem, although it might be 20 years in the future. The last thing I would want to see is Yangon becoming some sanitised tourist zone, completely stripped of any authenticity.
But that hasn’t been the main challenge. In a way, I think that because we’ve been under military dictatorship for such a long time, we’re at the very beginning of this debate about what our past is and how people should discuss it. And that’s not something anyone can dictate. I just wanted to make sure that physically, the past wasn’t destroyed, because I think that’s an important part of the discussion for me as well.
S: Right. I think Singaporeans are starting to ask similar questions about how we should be discussing our past. More people are willing to interrogate concepts we were raised to accept without hesitation—meritocracy, racial harmony, and colonialism, for example. But why do you see architectural heritage as a gateway into having these conversations?
T: I guess architecture isn’t necessarily the starting point, but we have this incredibly rich architectural heritage downtown. Part of this is colonial era buildings, part of it is places of worship … it’s almost a kind of museum that needs to be curated in different ways by local communities. Colonialism has such a dark past, and I think it’s important to view these buildings and their preservation not simply as a way to celebrate some kind of glorified colonial past, or to knock them down because we want a full break with that colonial past, but as a starting point for a discussion of what it all really meant.
In Myanmar’s case, the background is that under military rule, and even before, kids were only taught a very narrow nationalist narrative in terms of the past. There isn’t much modern history taught in any kind of critical way.
S: Since you mentioned national narratives: is the creation of a nuanced national narrative even possible? I feel like there are maybe two competing principles at work here. On the one hand, you want this rich tapestry of individual truths, but on the other hand you also have national narrative as something that’s binding and unifying—something that helps mobilise people behind an idea. And it feels like these are inherently contradictory.
T: Yeah. And I guess there’s always going to be that tension, but I think that’s fine. Like on the one hand, you want to encourage as critical and as multi-faceted a discussion as possible. You want to have different ways of approaching these things, and for different communities and different people to have different views, and to encourage kids in school to think creatively and critically about these things. And on the other hand … you have to teach these kids something right? It can’t just be an endless series of books. And I guess it’s just—accepting that you have this that story that might change, and encouraging people to be part of the discussion.
S: So what should good history education look like?
T: For me, it’s a couple of things. I mean, the reason you want kids to learn history is partly because history, like literature, is part of creating empathy. You want people to be able to put themselves in the shoes of someone in a different place, in a different time. I think that’s really important. So for me, it’s not just about teaching the history of your place; it’s about teaching global history and global connections and getting people to be interested in other people and other ways of life. That’s a fundamental value for me. And with that, I think, it’s then easier to have a national debate about how to think about your local history as well.
For example, the way Myanmar history is taught right now, the nationalist movement of the 1940s and the independence movement are taught almost in complete isolation from the fact that WWII also happened in Myanmar. It doesn’t consider that there were huge global forces that basically also determined the time and nature of independence.
S: What is an aspect of Myanmar’s recent history that you wish more people knew about?
T: Hmmm. I guess very broadly, two or three things.
One is that there is that very dark colonial past, which I think we have a tendency to just brush aside or romanticise. I mean, think of Kipling and Orwell. And that’s fine … up to a point. But at the end of the day, it was the British who created modern Burma as a military occupation, as a racial hierarchy, and as an incredibly exploitative capitalist economy. The echoes of this are still around.
Second, I think people have been very focused on the political struggle between dictators and military dictators, and democrats or opposition, and more recently, on ethnic conflict and violence and the Rohingya crisis as part of that. But I think that what is often not focused on, but is key to understanding Myanmar’s history, is the way in which capitalism has evolved in the country since the end of Burmese socialism in 1988.
Burmese socialism was a failed experiment, and no one wants to go back to that kind of very isolationist command economy of before. But it was, at the end of the day, a fairly equal society. Everyone was kind of poor together; there were no differences. And from 1989 onwards, this evolved into a kind of extremely predatory market-based economy, which is very much linked to the Chinese border, armed organisations, and illicit economies. I think this whole aspect—how it is the determinant dynamic in Myanmar—is often not discussed. And I would say that money and markets are a bigger determinant of everything that happens in Myanmar today, like in many other places, more than politics and even the ethnic conflict.
S: Do you think this debate (about whether this kind of consumer-driven market economy is one we truly want to live in) needs to happen regionally? There is so much inequality both within member states of ASEAN and across the region, but it seems like the sort of system you can’t overhaul unless everyone gets on board.
T: At the end of the day, we’re a world of sovereign states, and so the primary responsibility for fixing this—reducing inequality, dealing with the climate crisis, creating better lives for the people of Myanmar—rests with the Myanmar government and the Myanmar state. The thing is that with ASEAN, we have borders going down, we have more investment across borders and more movement of people. And so there is a certain responsibility from the rest of ASEAN towards the poorer parts of ASEAN, in terms of what their impact on trade and investment and flow of people is going to be as well.
There’s a lot of discussion about ASEAN integration and growth, but for me, I think the missing piece of that discussion is inequality—whether there is an alternative to the kind of consumer-driven economy we have now. And climate change. I think these things need to be at the centre of cross-regional discussions.
S: I imagine some might say that climate change should be your priority, rather than trying to save old buildings. Have you encountered this? And how would you respond to it?
T: The climate movement in Myanmar, particularly thinking about the impact of global climate change on Myanmar in addition to local environmental issues, is very nascent. But there are already so many different problems and challenges needing immediate attention. And if it’s difficult to get that kind of attention in a rich country that can actually afford to think 20 years in the future, it’s even harder in Myanmar.
But I don’t see these [climate activism and conservation work] as an either/or. Ultimately, I think the reason it’s important is that this is the one part of Myanmar where you have people not just from all over the country, but all over the world, living in a relatively tolerant, multi-ethnic society. You see it in the architecture that’s all around us, as well as in the living communities. So why would you put that at risk, especially given the importance in Myanmar of having these conversations? Why would you wilfully destroy the one place in our country which is the living example of our past, and a place in which we can discuss all these things?
And it’s not like we’re asking people to give up anything to protect this. I think the only thing we’re giving up is that there are some local real estate developers who may have made some money temporarily, building a 10-storey condo … but that’s it. For Burmese society, this is not a major cost.
S: One last question just to wrap up! We’ve spoken a fair bit about national narratives. How would you encourage young people to think of these as something we are actively writing now, rather than just working with what’s been handed down to us?
T: Well, the more you read history, I think the more you come to realise that we are really at a historic turning point now. And for people, unless they’re 95 or something like that, the next 10 or 20 years are going to be so incredibly important for everything—given climate, given technology, given the changing nature of world politics, everything. I don’t think you can have a sense of what the options might be going ahead unless you can appreciate what’s come before. And it’s not just the past of your country, but that of the whole world. I mean, I guess you could try reading sci-fi, but how would you imagine what the choices ahead might be otherwise?
This interview was lightly edited and condensed for length and clarity.
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