Without a comprehensive land use and development plan, Yangon risks becoming “yet another poorly managed and unattractive Asian megacity,” the Harvard Ash Center, which advises the Myanmar government, said in a report last year.
The JICA-led master plan proposes scores of projects, including a million-house building program, the regeneration of Yangon’s waterfront and a new central business district just south of the existing airport.
The Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC), as City Hall is officially known, is already inviting foreign and local companies to tender for land leases in the new 14.8 hectare CBD.
Japan expects to benefit from these projects. Earlier this year it wrote off ￥176.1 billion (US$1.78 billion) in debt and extended billions of yen more in aid, much of it earmarked for the Thilawa port and industrial zone being developed by Japanese companies to Yangon’s southeast.
As well as the master plan, JICA is also conducting four studies to support Thilawa’s development. Its staff occupy the office next to Toe Aung’s.
Unlike its Western counterparts, Japan’s aid agency often pursues a “two-pronged approach” to assistance, said Andrew Gulbrandson, an American urban planner who has given the master plan’s authors critical feedback.
“First, they want to help. Second, they want to identify opportunities for investment,” Gulbrandson said.
Case in point: a February seminar organized by City Hall and JICA to improve Yangon’s water supply, sewerage and drainage. It was an all-Japanese affair attended by big construction companies such as Kubota Corp and senior Tokyo officials.
All this gives Japanese companies an edge when bidding for Yangon projects, said Sungmin Ko, assistant commercial attache at the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency (KOTRA) in Yangon.
“Even though it’s open bidding, Japanese companies have more time, more information, more specs,” he said.
Many Myanmar officials privately express a preference for Japanese firms, but this doesn’t mean their bids will be successful, said Akihito Sanjo, a senior JICA representative in Yangon.
In August, for example, the Myanmar government awarded a billion-dollar project to build a new international airport for Yangon to South Korea’s Incheon Airport, beating a consortium led by Japan’s New Kansai International Airport.
“The result was very unfortunate for us,” Sanjo said.
Yangon’s biggest problem is one the former junta had trouble even acknowledging, never mind tackling: widespread urban poverty. At least 40 percent of its residents are “poor or extremely poor,” the UN housing agency UN-HABITAT said.
Yangon owes its grid-like central layout and monumental government buildings to the British, who ran the city for nearly a century until Myanmar won its independence in 1948.
However, it owes many of its slums to the junta, who in the 1980s and 1990s moved thousands of people from the city center to suburban wastelands, where they live in flimsy, flood-prone settlements with little or no access to basic services.
A fast-growing population is also heaping pressure on already overburdened health and educational systems. Many families can’t afford to send their children even to government schools, where supplies and various fees can cost up to 50,000 kyat (US$50) a month — a huge sum when the average Burmese salary is only a few dollars a day.