Downtown Yangon is a glorious, historical city center. Since the doors of Myanmar opened to foreign investment, a quiet and highly successful movement has begun. Social Enterprise, Doh Eain is joining forces with philanthropists and communities to save heritage areas from demolition or disrepair.
“Downtown Yangon has the largest number of heritage buildings than any other South-East Asian major city,” said William Myatwunna, Myanmar Union of Travel Agents Association. “Yet the area is more than buildings, it’s home to many vibrant cultures; Chinatown, the Indian community. That can’t be spoiled.”
Until the Military Government opened the doors to foreign investment there was financial hardship and many buildings fell into a state of disrepair. From 1989 when finance was more readily available many property owners believed the only option was demolition.
Today there are 2,400 heritage buildings, that’s a third less than thirty years ago, according to Thurein Aung, Program Officer Yangon Heritage Trust.
With the democratic election in 2012 there was a renewed focus on preserving Downtown. The trouble is without cash or Government incentives little could be done.
Since 2017 Doh Eain has offered residents an extraordinary alternative to help communities save their properties and obtain financial security.
“Protection not demolition, that’s the key to preserving this incredible city,” said Beverley Salmon, Deputy Director, Don Eain.
“Most of Downtown was laid out during a part of British colonization, 1895 to 1915, and while some has been demolished there is still so much historic fabric remaining.”
Today many buildings still stand, but have fallen into a state of disrepair, some have been abandoned.
In 2017 Gulam’s mother was ill, and with little money flowing, it was a struggle to maintain the building that once belonged to his grandparents. It was after conversations with his friend, Emilie Röell, Founder, Doh Eain that they came up with a potential solution.
Six months later his apartment was restored and provides an income for the family, it’s been a financial miracle.
Today the business model is well established as Doh Eain raises capital through Philanthropic investors, who receive a small return on their investment. That money is used to renovate local residents’ heritage apartments.
The cost of renovations range, between US$20,000 to US$150,000, and owners in return commit to Doh Eain managing the property until the loan is repaid.
Sounds ideal? However, there are still many challenges.
Some buildings have no clear titles, others have many multiple owners.
Historically grandparents were the first owners of the properties. After they died, their grandchildren inherited the building. However, for properties to be renovated permission is required from everyone on the title – in one case that meant the possibility of forty-six grandchildren.
There are more ambitious projects in the pipeline. “The more impact we see for communities the more determined we are to protect more buildings.”
There are few places in the world that have alleyways like Yangon and Doh Eain is working to bring life back to this public space.
In the early 1900’s five-meter-wide alleyways were planned to remove flood, storm-water and sewerage. For decades the lanes became a social playground and a walkway behind commercial streets to residential homes, reported Tomoko Matsushita, University of Tokyo.
That changed in the 1980’s when the Military gated and locked the alleyways as parts of new laws banning the gathering of more than five people and stopped mandating cleaning alleys, according to Myrte Mijnders, Head of Awareness Raising & Capacity Building, Doh Eain.
Now for residents on the top floors it’s routine to dump rubbish out the window into the alley creating a playground for rats, with smell and health problems left for others.
“What we have found at first is that often residents in higher apartments are resistant to reclaiming the alleyways,” said Mijnders.
By the end of the clean-up and painting communities drive the project forward, said Zay Bo Bo, Capacity Building Officer, Doh Eain. No longer does trash fall from the sky and in some Alley-Gardens tea shops have opened. “Today communities are independently reclaiming alleyways. People are seeing you can turn the space into something valuable and create a strong community”.
Travellers, Expats or Locals, how to get involved:
Impact Days: Paint, clean, design and enjoy an Alley Garden.
Walking Groups: Walking groups raise money that’s reinvested back into the community.
Volunteers: The is a Doh Eain Volunteer group (find on Facebook) with 1500 members.
General: Everyone’s welcome, get in touch!
Specialized: There’s a call-out for established businesspeople, architects, structural, mechanical and electrical engineers, whether you are a traveler or local.
Everyone: Invest or Donate: Well, that goes without saying.