Insight: With Japan's help, an ex-soldier leads Yangon from backwater to megacity

Tue Sep 10, 2013 5:21pm EDT
Email This Article |
Share This Article
  • Facebook
  • LinkedIn
  • Twitter
| Print This Article | Single Page
[-] Text [+]

By Andrew R.C. Marshall

YANGON (Reuters) - Every evening, long after Yangon's office workers have squeezed onto packed buses for grueling commutes to the suburbs, a single room remains lit up on the top floor of City Hall.

Inside sits Toe Aung, a former army major who almost by accident bears one of the biggest responsibilities in reform-era Myanmar: planning Yangon's unstoppable transformation from a regional backwater into Southeast Asia's next megacity.

As deputy head of urban planning, a department which didn't exist until he set it up in 2011, Toe Aung's task is unenviable. With its power shortages, floods, traffic jams, pollution and slums, Yangon is a moldering testament to nearly half a century of economic stagnation under military dictatorship.

Its population of about 5 million is expected to double by 2040, reflecting the rapid urbanization of a largely rural country. The prospect of jobs is luring thousands of underemployed villagers into a city ill-prepared to receive them.

"So many problems," muses Toe Aung, whose soft-spoken English has a U.S. accent picked up as a child in Washington, where his father was a military attache at the Myanmar embassy. "Which should be prioritized?"

Some answers lie - at least on paper - in the Yangon Master Plan, a 852-page study drafted with funds and expertise from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), which oversees Japan's aid to developing countries.

The plan will be finalized in December amid fears the city's soaring land prices are scaring off foreign investors. There are also concerns that City Hall's close cooperation with JICA will give Japanese companies an unfair advantage in bidding for infrastructure projects.

Yangon lost its status as Myanmar's capital in 2005, after the former military junta carved a new seat of government from a parched wilderness some 380 km (236 miles) to the north and called it Naypyitaw ("abode of kings").   Continued...

Toe Aung, deputy head of urban planning, poses for a photo at the Yangon City hall, with the lit Sule Pagoda seen behind him, in Yangon, September 5, 2013. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun