Academic journal article SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia

The Yangon Court Buildings: Between Thick and Thin Heritage

Academic journal article SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia

The Yangon Court Buildings: Between Thick and Thin Heritage

Article excerpt

In an exposed corner of the upper floor of Yangon's Bogyoke Aung San Market, a clothing store greets customers with a rack of light-coloured blouses and T-shirts. The wind catches the garments, and one can see that some of the T-shirts bear clear and clean printed images. "Ideal", reads one, with a sketch of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's face. "Outrage", reads another, with an angry dancing ogre-like figure, recalling the book Outrage: Burma's Struggle for Democracy by Bertil Lintner (1990). A third shows the silhouette of the market buildings themselves, as well as the date 1926. All are of a striking minimalist aesthetic, attractive and rather different from the usual fare of T-shirts found on Yangon's streets. And a fourth design--which featured the silhouette of a building that I knew well along with the words "Justice", "High Court" and "Since 1911"--caught my attention. (1) My research interest focused on the use and abuse of "heritage" in contemporary Myanmar. I was intrigued. Why was that specific court building singled out for representation (and commercialization)? And how was one to understand the word "justice" in the context of this nation, with its past and current ample injustices? Does the image of the High Court represent "justice" to people, or, with the added date, a heritage of justice even?

The "High Court" building in Yangon is a familiar sight even to casual visitors to the city. Its location in Kyauktada township between Pansodan Street to the east and Mahabandoola Garden Street to the west and between the two major East-West traffic axes of Mahabandoola Road and Merchant Road, is as central as any in the city. It faces the Mahabandoola Garden, a recently renovated and increasingly popular park with a modern playground, sparkling fountains and inviting lawns filled by youths and families by 3:00 p.m. nearly every day. North of the park is City Hall, a unique historical building syncretically combining British and local architectural styles. City Hall is flanked on its eastern side by the former Rowe & Co. department store, romantically remembered as the "Harrods of the East" (AMA 2012, p. 44) and recently renovated. Severely damaged during Cyclone Nargis in 2008, the building had served as the seat of the Department of Immigration until the government's move to the new capital Naypyitaw beginning in 2005. In 2011, the Yangon City Development Committee--Yangon's municipal government --placed the building on its list of five structures on a fast track to restoration. (2) To the west of City Hall lies the Sule paya, one of three most important pagodas of the city. After the British conquest of the city, the entire street grid of downtown Yangon was aligned to incorporate the Sule Pagoda, today an island of calm in the centre of a busy roundabout, reachable by a foot bridge, while cars and buses incessantly circle it. There are more landmarks in the area still, like the bright white Immanuel Baptist Church.

Few, if any, walking tours of downtown Yangon will not lead visitors right by the High Court. Despite the roadside entrances clearly marked "In" and "Out", the compound itself is, however, not open to the public. As to most of Yangon's official buildings dating to colonial times, access to the High Court is tightly controlled, and such measures are certainly understandable, in the case of a building housing courts of the highest level. The cumulative effect of the inaccessibility of such architectural treasures is that, especially for tourists who are subject to the barrage of media features--starting from guidebooks and inflight magazines--about the endangerment of Yangon's colonial heritage, the longing gaze, not least through the camera, is the only possible mode of interaction. (3)

If the High Court and other sites like it have become objects of projection and frustrated desire (Graeber 2001, p. 258) for visitors who literally have been hyped up over Yangon's unique "heritage", the role of these colonial buildings in local perspective remains an open question. …

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