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History of the Present: Yangon

Time and again, I spotted signs marking construction zones. Coming soon: a guesthouse; coming soon: a bank; coming soon: a hotel. It might as well have been the city’s official slogan. Yangon: coming soon. In the historic heart of the city, the Secretariat Building, the colonial seat of British Burma, sat abandoned and fenced off behind barbed wire, foliage growing out of its roof. Known as the Ministers’ Office since independence, the massive red-brick pile was left to ruin in 2006 when the military regime that has ruled the country for decades packed up and moved to a new capital city. Now, locals debated what it would become. Surely, something was coming soon .

This is a dynamic moment to visit Myanmar. After decades in isolation, the world’s longest-lasting military dictatorship is giving up power. The country has a new constitution, a new Parliament, and a National Human Rights Commission. In the past two years, it has welcomed Barack Obama (the first-ever visit by an American president), hosted the global business elite of the World Economic Forum, and assumed the chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. National elections in 2015 are the next step toward civilian governance (though a quarter of parliament seats will still be reserved for the military). If the transition comes off without a hitch, democracy itself is coming soon.

Almost by definition, the fall of the junta means the rise of Yangon, Myanmar’s principal city and largest port. The military rulers always hated the metropolis, feared it, stifled it. And yet, despite decades of repression, they never managed to subdue it. Not in 1988, when they responded to a democratic uprising by forcibly relocating migrant slumdwellers. Not the next year, when they placed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest, where she remained for most of two decades. Not in 1993, when they levelled coffeehouses popular with the city’s activists and intellectuals to construct the luxurious 26-story Traders Hotel.

Now, Yangon is on a path of liberalization, and a speculative wave is sweeping the city. Since 2010, office rents have increased eightfold; residential rents in desirable neighborhoods jumped 50 percent in 2013 alone. Meanwhile, an influx of tourists has spurred a hotel construction boom. In 2012, international arrivals at the Yangon airport topped one million, a 53 percent annual increase over the previous year. The official goal for 2014 is triple that figure. This is a tremendous challenge for a city that has had no experience with comprehensive urban planning in close to a century. In 1998, the city’s population was 2.5 million; now it is twice that, and by 2040, it is predicted to hit 11.7 million. Barring a concerted effort by city planners, most of the new growth will be in the form of shantytown sprawl — informal settlements on the outskirts, unconnected to utilities or transit.

Just a month before I arrived in Myanmar last winter, international advisors from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), with the support of local officials, released a proposed master plan for the city. Predicated on preserving the historic colonial center, the blueprint calls for directing development to a series of dense nodes arrayed around the region to be linked together by an improved transportation network. While the transitional government has endorsed the plan and is already implementing parts, this is the lamest of lame-duck governments — a regime that openly admits it has no legitimacy. And no one knows what will happen in next year’s elections.

In this region, it’s all bad models.

What makes Yangon’s future doubly unpredictable is that it is taking the leap into democratization and hyper-urbanization simultaneously. Long described as the place “where China meets India,” on account of its geography, Myanmar now lies between two very different models of urban development. To the east, there is China’s model of authoritarian politics and rapid economic change, where cities sprout up almost overnight and anyone standing in the way gets moved. To the west, there is the model of democratic India, where NGOs get a say in planning but squatters hold up infrastructure projects and rent control makes renovation of historic neighborhoods all but impossible. Democracy has many strengths but municipal transformation in long-stagnant societies does not seem to be one of them. Unsurprisingly, Southeast Asian nations like Vietnam and Cambodia have chosen to emulate China.

If Yangon is to develop more democratically than a Chinese city and more functionally than an Indian one, it will have to write its own script. As Moe Moe Lwin, the General Secretary of the Association of Myanmar Architects, told me, “In this region, it’s all bad models.” Indeed, in many Southeast Asian boomtowns, development has come at the cost of leveling historic downtowns (Hong Kong) or sprawling out into traffic-clogged nightmares (Bangkok). The cities that have managed to avert those fates — Hanoi with its heritage preservation, Singapore with its excellent transit and public housing — have done so under authoritarian rule. With no template for success, Myanmar will have to thrive on its own terms. “Maybe,” Moe Moe Lwin mused, “Yangon could be the model.”