Recently freed from the scaffolding that hid it for much of the last few years, the New Law Courts building we see today was first completed in 1931. The building housed the city’s district and local courts – part of the rapidly expanding colonial bureaucratic and legal systems, and the Police Commissioners office. Part of a second wave of British construction in the city, it replaced the original court in the older photograph.
The new building was built on an enormous steel frame, created in north-east England by a company called Dorman Long. Their name is still visible on exposed girders inside the building today. Dorman Long were responsible for many colonial era construction projects, including the beautiful Sydney harbour bridge and the railways of India.
Before the recent construction was begun on the building, the Yangon Heritage Trust carried out an archaeological survey on the large courtyard in the middle of the building. Since both the old and newer buildings featured an open courtyard, the ground there has been protected from the literal upheaval of the last 150 years of construction and renewal along the riverbank. The survey found evidence and artifacts of village life dating back to the 1600s.
That village would have been part of Dagon, then notable only as the gateway to the Shwedagon pagoda. Nearby Thanlyin, then known as Syriam, was the centre of trade in the area, and was already host to European visitors seeking their fortune and causing various troubles. It was not until 1756 that Alaungpaya took Syriam from the Mon, destroyed it, and replaced the relatively sleepy fishing village of Dagon with a new town, Yangon – ‘the end of strife’.
Despite its optimistic new name, Rangoon saw more than its share of strife, as did the Law Courts building itself. During the Japanese occupation of Burma it was used as the headquarters of the Kempetai, the notorious Japanese military police. Conditions were grim. The courtyard hosted pig-pen style cages used as cells, and prisoners would be dragged up to the upper floors to be tortured in a number of disturbingly interesting ways.
One of its most famous residents during this time was Hugh Seagrim, a British army major. During the Japanese invasion of Burma he had been training people of the Karen ethnic group in guerrilla style resistance. When the British were forced out of Burma, Seagrim stayed behind to lead their efforts, harrying the Japanese and their allied Burmese forces. Eventually he attracted the wrath of the Kempetai themselves. A concentrated manhunt began, and reprisals against the local Karen populations increased.
Hoping to avert further persecution of the Karen, Seagrim gave himself up to the Japanese, and found himself in the New Law Courts prison. Unlike his compatriots, there are no accounts of Seagrim being tortured – perhaps because the Japanese hoped to use him to bring the Karen into line. But eventually his refusals to do so wore thin, and he was taken to Kemmedine cemetery and executed.
Seagrim’s relationship with the Karen is representative of a once strong bond between the British and the Karen people. Karen held important roles in the British-led military in Burma, and many converted to Christianity. The Karen and the Burmese majority ethnic group would repeatedly find themselves on opposing sides throughout the colonial and world war periods. In the initial years after independence when various political and ethnic groups were violently agitating for power and influence, the Karen sought an independent state, or at the very least greater autonomy.
Though the forces involved, their objectives, and the extent of conflict have shifted over the years, it has continued in some regard ever since and created generations of refugees. Camps along the Thailand border are full of Karen, including men who fought with British forces – and Hugh Seagrim himself – against the Japanese.
After independence the Burmese military used the New Law Courts for essentially the same purpose the Japanese had, imprisoning and torturing political dissidents there. Prior to the recent renovations, the taller nearby buildings apparently still afforded a view of cages inside the upper floors. Accommodation has now been improved considerably: where once captives were confined and tortured there are now luxurious hotel rooms and suites. I imagine it’s only a matter of time until a Burmese studio attempts a horror film with this as a storyline.
Until 2012 it continued to host some of the courts for Yangon division, which were then cleared out in advance of the decision to lease the building for development. It will soon open as a luxury heritage hotel – initially a Kempinski, but after a fairly last minute change it will apparently now be a Rosewood instead.
I was lucky enough to tour the building in the midst of the renovations. While I was there they were slowly (and slightly nervously) filling the rooftop swimming pool for the first time. Despite the size of the building, the number of rooms is a relatively small 209, as much of the inner space is taken up by large halls and passageways that will form dining areas, reception areas and event spaces. The balconies and rooftop give a fantastic view across the river – a view that many even long term residents of Yangon have never seen, due to a lack of public buildings along Strand Road.
There was some controversy over the use of the building by a private company as a hotel, with the Myanmar Lawyers’ Network understandably pushing for its continued use as courts. It’s some comfort though that the restoration seems to be a sensitive one. Given its luxury status, it remains to be seen how accessible the building will be to people just interested in touring the building itself, but I think at least in the few months after opening it should be relatively open to casual visitors. If you’re around, be sure to take a look.
Finally, particularly for any British readers, I’d also like to nudge you towards the charity Help for Forgotten Heroes, which provides some support to the now very aged Karen World War II veterans. Grammar productions (who made We Were Kings), are also currently working on a film about these men and their stories called Forgotten Allies – their crowdfunding drive is still open for a few days here.