The Promises of Planning Under the NLD

Diana Huynh considers Myanmar’s trajectory towards national spatial planning and urbanisation under the NLD in the last year.

This post is the final installment of Tea Circle’s “2018 Year in Review” series, which looks back at developments in different fields over the last year.

Myanmar’s welcome period of relative political stability following the inauguration of the NLD government in 2016, has since, as observed here on Tea Circle and elsewhere, come to a halt. In the two years that have passed, the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Rakhine state, critiques of current leadership and the curtailment on a range of human rights issues have cast doubts on the country’s democratic future.

Against the backdrop of political challenges and incremental reform, the broader narratives continue to spin on Myanmar’s urbanisation (and related foreign investments) seeing as this is considered the necessary steps for the country’s social and economic development. Starting in 2012, the quasi-civilian government renewed its focus on urban issues, slowly moving away from the policies of the 1990s, which mainly served the junta’s political agenda. Under the leadership of the NLD government, the urban development sector and related planning activities (here meant in the general sense of the urban planning assemblage) have seen gradual, but incongruous transformation.

There is no doubt that well-managed urban growth will be central to Myanmar’s national development for decades to come. Building sustainable cities was indeed part of the policy measures mentioned in the twelve point National Economic Policy from 2016. Planning however, and the inherent idea of its promises to deliver, come with a set of contingencies. In Myanmar, to speak of the orientation towards the future in terms of planning, sometimes overlooks the complexities of the contemporary context, be it at the national or local level.

The promises of a National Urban Policy

Led by the Department of Urban and Housing Development (under the Ministry of Construction), the government is currently working on a National Urban Policy Framework (NUP-F) for Myanmar, with the support of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat). The framework is meant to eventually become a fully adopted government policy, a key instrument in directing political commitments to future action as it relates to urban development.

Priority areas in the NUP-F include, “municipal governance and finance, urban and regional legislation, land governance, housing and environmental and climate change issues,” according a national report published by UN-Habitat. A final national urban policy, which is also meant to encompass a National Spatial Development Framework in addition to other cross-sectorial frameworks, is thus slated to guide implementation strategies, with the aim to integrate infrastructure investments, socio-economic planning, and urban planning across levels of governance in Myanmar.

A realistic perspective on the wide range of legislative and policy issues suggests that planning at the national level is an optimistic, but arguably needed, future-oriented strategy. Before a NUP can effectively ‘trickle down’, confusing conditions of legislative implementation at the national, state and regional level will need to align. For example, how a range of urban policies will meet the future needs for a changing climate, particularly in cities throughout Myanmar, will also rely on consistent policies across different sectors.

More critically, the extent to which a NUP will be able to address the critical issue of land-grabs need also be considered. As the sociologist Saskia Sassen has observed, land-grabs and the subsequent issues of displacement is possibly one of the underlying factors that has been fueling the crisis in Rakhine. This illustrates the significance of making connections between the promises of social and spatial planning with political issues. The work of a comprehensive national framework is bound to be a slow process, but the process in itself should be one that is able to inform current practices.

The promises of development projects in the Yangon Region

Under the same political conditions that allowed for the gradual transformation of the national urban development sector, Yangon has seen several master plans developed by multilateral agencies at its disposal since the opening of its urban economy. One of the most prominent proposals is by Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). With its 41 priority projects, the plan’s comprehensive scope appears to be in line with the broader vision for national urban development. Yet, there is no clear connection between the NUP framework and the policies for Yangon’s urbansation.

With projected economic growth, Yangon has experienced the inevitability of rapid urbanisation. In the past year however, no overarching master plan has been adopted for Yangon after lengthy deliberations and proposed feasibility studies. While it is far from clear that the city has the enabling environment to implement one, the absence of a comprehensive urban plan also suggests that the timing and complexities of realising such a long-term urban plan appear incompatible with – or deprioritised – in the context of favouring either other kinds of private development projects and initiatives or fast economic and spatial growth, such as plans for Special Economic Zones and ‘new cities’ that will be connected with concurrently planned transportation projects.

The past year has indeed seen the announcements by the Yangon Regional Government or relevant ministries to further expand and develop new projects in the city. These projects, which are expected to provide jobs for rural-to-urban migrants, increase industrial building activity, facilitate technical infrastructure, ease traffic congestion among other urban prescriptions responds to the need for economic growth, but the scale and conditions under which Yangon’s development projects are approved come at an immediate social and spatial cost, and are a cause of concern.

Yangon is experiencing less green space everyday, made evident by the building activities surrounding Inya Lake, while a huge part of the city’s population is struggling with evictions, land rights issues and lack of binding regulations as a consequence of haphazard building activities. As such, the economic advantages following urban development in Yangon the past year is not likely to materialise automatically for everyone.

In a different capacity, the past year has nevertheless seen more local urban initiatives spearheading cultural and revitalisation projects, the latter exemplified by Doh Eain, a social enterprise focusing much of its work in downtown Yangon. These activities, planning at the local level, serves as a reminder that the process of planning and the ability to successfully implement over time is dependent on seeing possibilities in bottom-up approaches as much as expecting change from the top brought about by political will. Yet, in Yangon, the plans for building and developing for now, act as a means of managing the present – as messy as that present appears to be – to project expectations and possibilities over time, while also allowing us to imagine the future.

The promises of planning under the NLD?

The planning at the national level – which in an abstract sense serves as a kind of expectation, but can be the promise of a policy, or a set of laws – and the urban development that plays out in Yangon – where the planning of projects and urban blueprints are in many ways manifestation of capital power over a political one – shows that political convergence in the country has a long way to go.

Implicated in the promises of the NLD government’s planning agenda across different levels of governance are a range of activities: from housing and infrastructure projects and regional development to economic planning, which are contingent on a set of other issues pertaining to temporality, agency, power, and spatiality. The past year has shown that the government’s limited ability to implement broad economic policies alongside political reform present limitations on the kind of planning that can deliver its promises of the future, and how this will affect people’s lives. (But then again, a year to reshape the plans for the country’s future is not a long time compared to the period of a few weeks in 2005 when the capital city was abruptly relocated to Nay Pyi Taw).

Planning under the NLD government, if successfully implemented at the right levels at the right scale, can be a spatial manifestation of economic and political accomplishments, and a reflection of improved settlement conditions for the people of Myanmar in the twenty first century. To be sure, the NLD government is determined to ensure that development planning is taking place across the countr (while not without controversies) this is evident in the multilateral infrastructure projects which aim to connect Myanmar with rest of the region.

There are reasons to be hopeful, but let’s not forget that planning is then equally an exercise of democracy in itself. Comprehensive planning without the moral obligations that will tie current actions to the future while also reflecting an understanding of the past, is then, planning that is slightly out of reach.

Image credit: Diana Huynh