Failure to help this poor, ill-educated underclass in a city where luxury cars and other conspicuous displays of wealth are increasingly common could lead to social unrest. Most democracy uprisings in Yangon against the former junta were sparked by the economic woes of the people.
All this adds urgency to Toe Aung’s work. It is often 10pm before he leaves City Hall, a spire-bedecked monolith with cavernous, ill-lit rooms and desks piled high with Dickensian-looking ledgers. Computers are hard to spot.
Now 46, he spent 18 years in the Myanmar military, serving as a staff officer for a junta hardliner called Brigadier General Aung Thein Linn, whom the junta appointed mayor of Yangon in 2003. Toe Aung followed.
City Hall had no dedicated urban planning unit until Toe Aung set it up in September 2011, just six months after another reform-minded ex-soldier, Thein Sein, became Myanmar’s president.
“My dream is to make Yangon a model of urban development,” he said.
That might seem far-fetched, but stagnation and neglect has bequeathed Yangon some advantages over its Asian rivals. Its historic buildings, though in disrepair, have not been bulldozed, nor its green spaces devoured by greedy developers.
However, time is running out. Much of the area slated for new development is unproductive agricultural land, but speculation is driving up its price, said Toe Aung. “We can’t control land prices in our city,” he said.
One such proposal being considered is a bridge to link the downtown with Dalat, a largely rural area on the opposite bank of the Yangon River. This has prompted land prices in Dalat to shoot up, locals said.
NO MOTORBIKES HERE
As gridlocked Asian capitals such as Jakarta and Dhaka show, megacities do not function properly without mass rapid transit systems. At least 80 percent of Yangon commuters rely on the antiquated buses which honk and jostle in the streets below Toe Aung’s office. They are overcrowded even outside peak hours.
Motorcycles, common elsewhere in Asia, are not an option. They were banned by the former junta, because — so one story goes — a paranoid general felt vulnerable to bike-riding assassins. Reintroducing them to Yangon’s clogged and chaotic streets would be “impossible,” Toe Aung said.
Fortunately, Yangon already has a circle and suburban lines plied by infrequent, slow-moving and ramshackle trains that connect the center to suburbs and industrial estates. Japanese experts working at Myanmar Railways are already researching how to upgrade the circular line, although no contract has yet been awarded for the actual work, JICA’s Sanjo said.
Japan is “definitely interested in that project,” he added.
Yangon lacks two other things — the first being money.
The YCDC’s 2012-2013 budget is just 55 billion kyat (US$56 million). Chicago, a city with half the population, passed a US$6.5 billion budget last year.
The second is a charismatic mayor in the mold of New York City’s Michael Bloomberg or the popular Jakarta governor Joko Widodo. However, don’t ask an old soldier like Toe Aung to comment on this. In 2011, his ex-boss was replaced as mayor by Hla Myint — another former brigadier general.