Heritage experts and US ambassador sound alarm over Myanmar’s vanishing movie palaces

In the heady months since Myanmar’s democratic transition gathered pace, culminating in the November polls that brought a long-awaited opposition victory, Yangonites have got used to clustering in hot galleries to listen to heated discussions.

But this weekend’s panel debate at the downtown Myanmar Deitta Gallery, which brought together academics, officials, heritage experts and outgoing US ambassador Derek Mitchell, took on a more unusual though not less emotive subject: the movies.

Myanmar’s beloved theaters – decades-old with distinctive geometric façades – are vanishing, researcher Philip Jablon told the dozens-strong crowd gathered in the stuffy space on Saturday afternoon.

The Bangkok-based American, who has spent years documenting the decline of theaters in the region, recently visited the Irrawaddy Delta expecting to return with photos to add to his collection. (The images are currently on show at Deitta).

Instead, he found that many of the cinemas had been demolished to make way for new developments. “There are literally only two active movie theaters in the entire division,” he said.

In Yangon, the ‘cinema row’ on Bogyoke Aung San Road that flourished during Myanmar’s cinematic golden era of the 50s has been decimated, leaving just a handful of theaters standing.

More than 10 have been demolished, said Dr Toe Aung, head of urban planning at the Yangon City Development Committee, citing the lack of legislation protecting heritage buildings.

“Even now we don’t have any laws or rules,” he said. “Even in the downtown [alone] we have over 2,000 [heritage] buildings but the problem is… lots of people want to knock down and demolish these buildings and build new modern buildings.”

Finding incentives to persuade land owners to upgrade or renovate heritage instead of knocking it down is an “ongoing process”, he said.

From left: Philip Jablon, Dr Toe Aung, Moe Moe Lwin, Aung Lwin and Ambassador Derek Mitchell. Photo / Coconuts Yangon

While actor Aung Lwin, from the Myanmar Movie Pictures Organization, explained how everything went “downhill” in the 1960s after the theaters were nationalized under the former ruling military junta, a note of hope was sounded by US Ambassador Derek Mitchell.

The embassy recently persuaded the Ministry of Information to halt the demolition of the Waziyar Theater on Bogyke Aung San Road and helped establish a board of directors who plan to turn it into a multi-use arts center.

“We always say this is a moment of opportunity and also a moment of challenge,” said Mitchell. “As the place opens up, it’s going to develop.

“Elsewhere in Asia, they have destroyed their past…. Something I noticed here is a pride that may not exist elsewhere to preserve what is special. There’s a sense among the people: let’s pick up where we left off…The movie houses were shut down [during the military junta], let’s rebuild what we had before.”

As for what should happen to the others, it’s anybody’s guess.

When asked whether the theaters, if preserved, could be used for other purposes, Moe Moe Lwin, director of the Yangon Heritage Trust, said: “In the case of Waziyar, we have chosen to continue with the original functions but others could have other uses.”

Myanmar’s Vanishing Movie Theaters is on show at Myanmar Deitta Gallery through March 6. For more details, check Facebook.

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