Yangon - From stately city to crumbling symbol of isolation

Sun Nov 27, 2011 4:35am GMT

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 anglicising 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 rivalled 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 nationalisation and global isolation.   Continued...

A Buddhist monk walks past the City Hall in downtown Yangon November 5, 2010.  REUTERS/stringer
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