Every evening, long after Yangon’s office workers have squeezed onto packed buses for grueling commutes to the suburbs, a single room remains lit up on the top floor of City Hall.
Inside sits Toe Aung, a former army major who almost by accident bears one of the biggest responsibilities in reform-era Myanmar: planning Yangon’s unstoppable transformation from a regional backwater into Southeast Asia’s next megacity.
As deputy head of urban planning, a department which didn’t exist until he set it up in 2011, Toe Aung’s task is unenviable. With its power shortages, floods, traffic jams, pollution and slums, Yangon is a moldering testament to nearly half a century of economic stagnation under military dictatorship.
Its population of about 5 million is expected to double by 2040, reflecting the rapid urbanization of a largely rural country. The prospect of jobs is luring thousands of underemployed villagers into a city ill-prepared to receive them.
“So many problems,” muses Toe Aung, whose soft-spoken English has a US accent picked up as a child in Washington, where his father was a military attache at the Myanmar embassy. “Which should be prioritized?”
Some answers lie — at least on paper — in the Yangon master plan, an 852-page study drafted with funds and expertise from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), which oversees Japan’s aid to developing countries.
The plan will be finalized in December this year amid fears the city’s soaring land prices are scaring off foreign investors. There are also concerns that City Hall’s close cooperation with JICA will give Japanese companies an unfair advantage in bidding for infrastructure projects.
Yangon lost its status as Myanmar’s capital in 2005, after the former military junta carved a new seat of government from a parched wilderness about 380km to the north and called it Naypyidaw (“abode of kings”).
Yet, the old capital remains Myanmar’s commercial, industrial and financial center, with the Yangon Region accounting for about 22 percent of GDP in 2010 and 2011, according to the master plan.
Yangon has the country’s main ports, making it the most obvious location for export-oriented manufacturing. It is also the main tourist gateway, with visitor arrivals surging since a quasi-civilian government took office in 2011.
In short, Myanmar’s reform-era economy depends upon the fortunes of its biggest city. JICA puts the cost of 103 “priority projects” in Yangon at US$5.4 billion, with experts predicting the city’s long-term transformation will cost tens of billions more.
SLEEPY NO MORE
As with all great cities, Yangon’s dysfunction is part of its charm. Not if you live there, however.
The power shortages mean back-up generators clog its crumbling pavements. The rear windows of many dilapidated tenements look out upon alleys carpeted with rat-infested garbage. This clogs up drainage pipes and worsens the flooding during the monsoon season.
Downtown Yangon has a decrepit sewer system built when Myanmar, then better known as Burma, was a British colony. Elsewhere, septic tanks are emptied into open drains. Less than half the city has access to piped water.
Then there’s the traffic. During decades of military-imposed isolation, Yangon boasted fresh air and sleepy roads. Not anymore. The easing of government restrictions on car imports in 2011 led to a surge of vehicles on Yangon’s narrow and rutted streets. The city center is often gridlocked and thick with exhaust fumes.