A group of 70 Myanmar lawyers protested Wednesday in a bid to stop the redevelopment of two British colonial-era buildings in the former capital Yangon, saying they will file a lawsuit within a month to prevent the structures from being converted into a hotel and other businesses.
The protesters from the Myanmar Lawyers’ Network said they opposed the privatization of the former High Court and Police Commissioner’s Office buildings in downtown Yangon, and wanted to see them remain in service of the country’s justice system.
The private development of the two buildings, which were once listed as national heritage sites and auctioned off to developers by Myanmar’s Investment Commission two years ago, violates the country’s historic preservation laws, they said.
Lawyers’ Network member Soe Tint Yee said the lawyers were preparing a file a lawsuit soon in a bid to stop the redevelopment from going forward.
“We are going to file a lawsuit against the Myanmar Investment Commission and the companies within a month,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service after the lawyers gathered in downtown Yangon.
Interior renovation has already begun on the former police headquarters, according to the lawyers, after both buildings were leased to private developers in 2012.
Myanmar-owned company Flying Tiger Engineering is working with Singapore-based Diamond Asia Capital Co to turn the sprawling two-story structure into a luxury hotel.
Part of the former High Court building, a century-old red brick edifice that housed the country’s top court until the capital was moved in 2005, has been converted into condominiums. The rest of it is slated to be turned into a museum and restaurant, according to reports.
The Lawyers’ Network has been in a long-running bid against the privatization of both buildings, which were put on a national heritage list in 1998.
A symbol of the rule of law
Lawyer Thein Than Oo said the group wants to see them continue to be used for purposes related to the judiciary.
“Yangon’s 101-year-old High Court building has been designated as a heritage site. It is also a symbol of the rule of law.”
“Judicial buildings should be splendid, but the authorities are trying to move the courts to a small street corner and replace the historic court with a [new development]. That’s why we’re protesting to stop the project.”
The businesses have pledged to preserve the architecture of the buildings, according to reports in local media.
But Thein Than Oo said concerns remain about how well the buildings’ historical features will be preserved, citing examples of privately-led conservation and renovation projects on other architectural gems in the country that have gone awry.
The Lawyers’ Network has filed several petitions to President Thein Sein and top ministers opposing the projects, citing a 1988 preservation law that carries a five-year prison term for anyone who makes structural changes to landmark buildings and calling for charges to be filed against those responsible for the buildings’ auction.
In recent years the two buildings were used for Yangon district and regional legal offices until they were handed over to the Investment Commission in April 2012.
Authorities have said the buildings were expensive to maintain and renovate.
Reported by Ba Aung and Nay Myo Htun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.