Behind these overgrown trees the Secretariat remains the most impressive colonial building in the city. The grand dome and most of its towers were destroyed nearly a century ago, but the scale of the building alone is still staggering. What truly makes the building special though is how deeply tied its history is to that of Myanmar: almost every chapter of the country’s modern history is reflected in the story of the Secretariat.
When the British first arrived in Rangoon, the core of the town sat on a small island surrounded by a moat of swamp and marsh. Beyond that the land was waterlogged, and dotted with ponds and lakes. These were filled and covered to make the foundations for the modern city. Like many of Yangon’s colonial buildings, the Secretariat is built on these rather squelchy foundations.
This made the Secretariat’s construction challenging. When the first, central section of the building was completed, it began to sink into the waterlogged ground. Giant wooden stakes topped with an iron grid had to be driven into the earth beneath it to hold it up. This couldn’t completely solve the issue, and today the building is a little uneven as a result.
This was actually the second Secretariat building in the city – the first was a much smaller building on Strand Road. After the final invasion of northern Burma in 1885 the colonial administration now controlled the entirety of Burma and its economy, requiring more and more government staff. A new building was commissioned, with a whole city block set aside.
Completed in phases, construction took 16 years – finally finishing in 1905, and was quickly filled with colonial bureaucrats. And what a bureaucracy it was! By 1940 there was a veritable army of secretaries, joint secretaries, deputy secretaries, under-secretaries and assistant secretaries. The system was governed by an enormous book called the Secretariat Code, which was full of further corrections and amendments.
The central courtyard of the Secretariat was a public park, and outside of office hours was open to all. Surrounded by the bureaucratic engine responsible for the control of their country, the Burmese were welcome to lounge and enjoy themselves in the manicured gardens. This echoes the sentiment of much of the early colonial literature, which eagerly depicts the Burmese as uninterested in politics and business, happy to lead carefree lives as the British helped themselves to the country’s resources.
But the Burmese weren’t satisfied with picnics in the park for long. Calls for greater involvement in politics grew, and in 1923 the first step to self-rule came in the form of a new legislative council. 79 of the 103 seats were put to a democratic election – a first for the country, though due to various restrictions only about 15% of Burma’s population were allowed to vote. The council would be housed in a new building built inside the walls of the Secretariat.
Unsurprisingly the British retained ultimate control of the government. They directly appointed 22 seats, and held a veto over any council decision. Only some areas of government were handed over to the council, such as education and health; others like defence, finance and law were not. Despite this, the change was an important first step. Here, surrounded by the imposing heart of the colonial system, Burmese independent rule began to take shape.
The second slider below shows the inner courtyard of the Secretariat with the completed legislative council building. This was a challenging photograph to take and I wasn’t able to line the image up perfectly – hopefully one day I can update it.
While the future political structure of independence continued to grow inside the Secretariat, there were increasing anti-colonial protests outside it. During one demonstration in 1938 the Secretariat was surrounded by student protestors. A mounted police charge by the British resulted in the death of one, Aung Kyaw. He was retrospectively given the title of leader, ‘Bo’, and the street west of the Secretariat was later named for him.
As if an omen of the shifting political power, the 1930 earthquake in 1930 broke the Secretariat’s dome and most of the smaller towers, which were then removed for safety purposes. The symbol of British imperial power in the city became a little less imposing.
Soon after the conclusion of the Second World War Burmese independence was finally secured. Within a six month period the Secretariat would now host two of the most defining moments in Myanmar’s modern history: the murder of Aung San, and the end of British rule.
One of the key architects of independence, Aung San was killed in July, 1947. Armed men burst in to a small meeting room on the upper floor of the building, and gunned down six ministerial leaders, a secretary, bodyguard and Aung San himself. They had been sent by former Prime Minister U Saw, who was promptly found out and convicted by a British tribunal. After independence U Saw tried to argue that the British tribunal lacked legitimacy in the newly independent country, but this did not save him: he was hung and buried in an unmarked grave in Insein prison.
Six months later it was within the Secretariat that the handover ceremony took place. The legions of secretaries were gone, their endless files and notes shipped to India and Britain. At 4:20am, surrounded by the quiet halls, the British flag was lowered and the Union of Burma flag raised. The last British Governor of Burma drove from the Secretariat to the docks, and boarded a steam boat to India. British rule had finally ended.
The below video from British Pathé shows the official handover ceremony, and the departure of the Governor.
The Secretariat remained in use by the government after independence, and was later renamed the Ministers’ Office. As military government policies increasingly damaged the country’s economy, the Secretariat was falling into disrepair. It was also battered by cyclone Nargis in 2008, losing sections of the roof that have only recently been repaired.
During the decades of military control, the Secretariat was completely closed to the public. There would be no park for the people to enjoy in the cool evenings: the government was not beholden to the people, and paranoia kept them at arms length. That same paranoia eventually drove the military government to the new capital at Naypidaw. The staff of the Secretariat were moved to enormous new ministry buildings in the new capital. The building was abandoned except for some military staff and their families who lived there.
For many years the only interaction that could be had with the Secretariat was from outside its fences, which only added to its legend. The general decay of the building and a total lack of transparency around its future led to fears that it might one day be demolished.
In recent years this has changed. From 2014 the building was opened annually on Martyr’s Day for the anniversary of Aung San’s assassination. Thousands of visitors queued all around the building’s perimeter, waiting to see the inside of the building, but foremost the room where the shooting took place.
Now under full redevelopment, today there is no question that the Secretariat building will survive. Questions remain however over the use of such an important building. The future Secretariat will certainly be a mixed use space: but will it be a healthy mix, with plenty of museum, event and gallery space open to the public? Or will it be dominated by private offices and shops?
Like much of Myanmar, the Secretariat bears the scars of earthquakes and cyclones, isolation and neglect. It bore witness to the expansion and collapse of British rule, cradled Burmese democracy within its imperial walls, and saw the death of its most celebrated champion. Today, the debate over the use of the building reflects broader questions of the future of the city.
It’s tremendously exciting that soon the entire Secretariat complex will be part of Yangon again. One day perhaps even the dome and missing towers might be restored – it would be incredible to see the building in its full glory.