A man walks by construction halted by the government in Yangon. Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters

Myanmar’s new government has suspended the construction of skyscrapers in the former capital, choosing safety over quick profits.

A year and a half ago, a group of Yangon architects, engineers, and preservationists submitted a letter to Myanmar’s then-president, sounding the alarm on unruly urban development. The group called on the government to suspend construction projects and form a committee of experts to review and manage building in the city.

The group argued that Yangon lacks proper construction and zoning guidelines, particularly in the face of its surge in building since 2011, when the military relinquished direct control of the government and opened up the country’s economy. Myanmar’s economy is now one of the world’s fastest growing, at 7 to 8 percent a year. High-rises have been a hallmark of this spurt of development. The letter noted that regulations harken back to a time when buildings only reached a maximum of four stories.

Myanmar’s newly elected government, led by Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy Party, appears more in line with such thinking than the previous administration. In May, Chief Minister of Yangon Phyo Min Thein suspended construction on around 200 building projects of nine stories or higher, and ordered investigations to determine whether they are being planned or built safely and correctly.

Yangon has seen a proliferation of construction projects since Myanmar’s economy opened up in 2011. (Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters)

Reviews for 12 of the buildings were completed earlier this month, with the Yangon government ordering safety modifications for all of them. These include addressing such issues as a too-narrow strip of land adjoining one structure and reducing the height on most by several stories.

Developers are furious with the new rules. Those whose buildings were granted initial approval by the previous government are particularly incensed, with some even threatening lawsuits. The changes mean major financial losses. For instance, some upper-level apartments that had already been sold will now never exist. In addition, many construction workers and contractors have been laid off.

Yangon—and Myanmar more generally—is navigating a now-booming capitalist economy after decades of isolation. As the new government aims to “modernize” the city and country, it ostensibly wants to avoid the mistakes of other rapidly developing locales. China, for example, is known for its “tofu projects,” meaning buildings and other infrastructure built so shoddily that they collapse—often resulting in the deaths of inhabitants and workers.

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