YANGON (Reuters) - There are no skyscrapers in Yangon. No gleaming shopping malls. Certainly no subway system. Its rutted sidewalks are laced with treacherous holes and broken slabs of concrete.
Myanmar’s former capital and biggest city is a crumbling monument to almost half a century of isolation and mismanagement at the hands of generals who took power in a 1962 coup and ruled with an iron first until a nominally civilian parliament opened in March this year.
The city that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will visit this week wasn’t always that way.
In the early 20th century, the country then known as Burma was one of Asia’s richest nations and a shining part of the British empire.
Imposing Victorian buildings rose on the waterfront of the capital. Department stores sold goods imported from Europe. Crowds packed into majestic cinemas with grand names such as the Palladium and Excelsior.
After seizing Yangon in 1852 and anglicizing its name to Rangoon, Britain developed the area into its administration base, building law courts, parliament buildings, shady parks and botanical gardens. Rangoon University, founded in 1878, became one of Asia’s premier universities.
The city was laid out by many of the same British urban planners who helped to design another strategic British colony, Singapore. Its public services and infrastructure rivaled London‘s.
Rangoon was ravaged during the Japanese occupation in World War Two, but still retained much of its imperial grandeur when it was granted independence by Britain in 1948.
But independent Burma was plagued by insurgencies and the military took over in a 1962 coup. A disastrous “Burmese Way to Socialism” adopted by the then-leader, General Ne Win, led to sweeping nationalization and global isolation.
Today, chronic power outages and deteriorating buildings are constant reminders of decades of troubles.
Yellow and orange diesel generators, some as big as buses, are ubiquitous, symbols of a failing power grid behind the city of about 5 million people that accounts for a quarter of Myanmar’s economic activity.
“Sometimes the power is cut and sometimes it’s regular. We’re used to it,” said 71-year-old Abdullah Mingala, an ethnic Indian Burmese who was born and raised in Yangon and who makes a living renting out a pickup truck and a sedan as taxis.
“The best thing about the city is its weather and people. The weather is not too hot and everyone is simple and friendly and open.”
Myanmar has not had a record of being simple or friendly.
The United States and Europe imposed sanctions in the years after the junta refused to hand power to the winners of a 1990 election and threw hundreds of democracy activists in jail. Thousands of activists were killed. Continued human rights abuses over the years sealed the country’s pariah status.
Aid from organisations such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund ended. Investment from the West dried up.
The government moved the capital to the interior, a new city called Naypyitaw, in 2006.
Signs of Myanmar’s isolation include a dearth of major international brands, save a few Asian consumer goods and computer manufacturers such as Hitachi and Samsung.
There are no Coca-Cola or Heineken signs in Yangon. Instead, billboards proudly advertise made-in-Myanmar goods such as “Sunday Coffee Mix and Tea Mix,” “Wellman Vitabiotics Supplements,” “Fresh Up” toothpaste and “Denim” men’s care products.
“Beer stations,” Yangon’s humble answer to the pub, sell cold Myanmar beer on tap for 600 kyat (76 U.S. cents) a glass.
On the steeets, booksellers throw plastic tarpaulin over sidewalks stained with rust-red betel nut spittle and offer used titles such as Frederick T. Wood’s 1961 book “Current English Usage.” One even had the March 30, 1992, issue of Newsweek for sale, a youthful Bill Clinton on the cover with the headline “Can He Beat Bush?”
At Cherry Mann, a restaurant in Yangon’s Chinatown that’s been serving the community for 42 years, customers sit at fold-out tables in the street on a cool night and tuck into curried meat and fried ‘pratha’ flat bread.
“It’s hard to say if business conditions now are good or bad or improving. They’re okay. They could be better,” said Htat Kyo, a restaurant employee, as he prepares cheques.
U Thu Myint, a 77-year-old former professor of Burmese history, said he was forced to retire from his job at a state university at the age of 64, a year before he would have been eligible to collect his pension. Life is a struggle, he says.
He spends his days shuffling around Myanmar’s holiest of shrines, the dazzling, gold-domed Shwedagon Pagoda, where he offers visitors facts about the stupa, its history as the anchor of Yangon and the principles of Buddhism. He asks for cash donations.
“The cost of living is very high now. One kg of rice went from 1,000 kyat a few months ago to 1,500 kyat now,” he said. “I may move back to my place of birth and become a monk next year.”
But Myanmar’s economic stunting has one silver lining: it may have saved once-stunning landmark colonial-era buildings in Yangon from the wrecking ball.
A riverside grid of streets that forms the downtown area, a colonial vestige in and of itself, is full of buildings constructed when the country was one of Britain’s most-prized colonial crown jewels from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s.
The $300-a-night Strand Hotel, opened in 1901 and refurbished in 1995, is an example of what many buildings could be, with marble floors, lazy ceiling fans and dark wood paneling.
Some locals fear the new government’s recent eagerness to end its isolation could threaten stately but time-worn structures that are reminders of Yangon’s former glory. A sense of urgency to protect the architectural heritage appears to be growing.
There has been outcry in recent weeks, for instance, in Myanmar’s flourishing private newspapers over comments by a well-heeled businessman and member of parliament that the derelict, red-brick former colonial government complex known as the Secretariat might be turned into a hotel.
The complex that occupies an entire city block is abandoned, overgrown with weeds and surrounded by a fence to keep the public out. Some consider it beyond repair, yet it holds a place in history as the site where revered General Aung San, the father of Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, was assassinated in 1947.
In recent weeks a feeling of cautious optimism has begun to infect the slow-moving city as the nominally civilian government that took office eight months ago shows signs of embracing reforms and engaging with the world, as illustrated by Clinton’s thee-day visit from Wednesday, the most prominent by an American since before the 1962 coup.
“We are all talking about it,” said Abdullah Mingala. “We are all hopeful.”
Editing by Jason Szep, Raju Gopalakrishnan and Ron Popeski