Can art bring the Secretariat building back to the people of Yangon?

Yangon’s Secretariat building might be the most important building in Myanmar.

It was built over 100 years ago as the headquarters of British colonial rule. It was where General Aung San, Myanmar’s national hero, was assassinated along with eight of his comrades in 1947. It hosted the ceremony initiating Burma’s independence in 1948. And it was the site of Burma’s first independent parliament.

But in 2005, the Secretariat was abandoned, and the government of Myanmar moved to the newly-built Naypyidaw. Its gates were shut, and the people of Yangon lost access to a central piece of their heritage.

The Secretariat’s future grew dimmer in 2012, when a company run by a military family was granted a lease to the building. The company initially pledged to maintain the building for the public, but later faced public backlash after hosting a private party in the Secretariat for a family member.

Then, on July 19, 2014 – the anniversary of Aung San’s death known as Martyrs’ Day – the Secretariat was unexpectedly opened to the public. Parts of the building were also opened on Martyrs’ Day each year since.

The Secretariat has never been permanently repurposed for the benefit of the people. But there are signs of this changing. The greatest of which came on January 14, when a wing of the building was set up to display the art of renowned artist Wolfgang Laib in an exhibition hosted by the Goethe Institut.

Laib is considered one of the most influential visual artists alive today. His use of natural, perishable materials hints at the delicacy of Myanmar’s physical heritage and the need to preserve, honor and cherish it.

“Where the Land and Water End” is the first public art exhibition hosted at the Secretariat, and the people of Yangon hope it will not be the last.

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