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Tourism boom threatens Burmese greatest treasures

The hotels are fully booked and the planes are packed as Burma experiences a tourist boom fuelled by perceptions abroad that its worst years of tyranny may be behind it.

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The hotels are fully booked and the planes are packed as Burma experiences a tourist boom fuelled by perceptions abroad that its worst years of tyranny may be behind it.

But the rush to development poses a threat to one of the long-isolated nation’s greatest potential treasures — the colonial quarter of old Rangoon, where stately, if faded, imperial buildings evoke a lost era.

The Burmese historian Thant Myint-U calls it “one of the best-preserved colonial cityscapes anywhere in the world”.

“Rangoon’s unique architectural heritage is a priceless asset that is today under severe threat from developers,” he says. “What has been unwittingly but perfectly preserved during five decades of economic stagnation might not survive the construction boom that’s under way.”

When the British packed up and left in 1948, he maintains, “Rangoon was like a big empty movie set, the Burmese themselves like supporting actors still hanging around after the main stars had left.”

The blend of grand Edwardian buildings along the riverfront with the golden spires of Buddhist shrines, minarets and Hindu temples, all immersed in a teeming street life, makes it one of the last cities where the old Asia can be seen in all its splendour and squalor.

Although most of their structures are intact, many relics of empire have fallen into decay, with peeling stucco and faded facades penetrated by weeds and tropical plants.

The symbol of British rule, the red-brick government secretariat, languishes in fenced-off ruin. Local conservationists say a threat from a developer has been narrowly averted, perhaps because it was the scene in 1947 of the assassination of Burma’s national hero, Aung San, father of today’s democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.

“People in the government might hesitate over the secretariat because it is seen as something of a shrine, but they can’t quite make up their minds what to do with it,” says a diplomat.

Many in the Burmese government believe in the Chinese model of development at any cost, but a growing minority realise careful restoration for tourism could be more profitable.

Thant Myint-U is pioneering a conservation project and foreign embassies are lending quiet support.

Tourism has grown since the government freed Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner.

Government figures show the number of visitors rose more than 25 per cent to 343,000 from 271,547 between January and November last year.

Bookings have risen after Suu Kyi dropped her call for travellers to boycott the country, as long as they avoid spending money in ways that reward businesses linked to the generals who ruled before the civilian government took office last year.

The soaring numbers are still tiny compared with the 15 million tourists who went to neighbouring Thailand last year.

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