Yangon’s Rejuvenated Alleyways Risk Returning to Dumping Grounds after COVID-19 and Coup

Yangon’s Rejuvenated Alleyways Risk Returning to Dumping Grounds after COVID-19 and Coup

What once were hopeful renovation projects representing a renewal of civic pride in downtown Yangon are quickly returning to dumping grounds under military misrule. 

Alleyways between Yangon’s high-rise buildings were sealed off by Burma’s previous military rulers, allegedly to stop people congregating outside of the purview of the intelligence services.

In the absence of a reliable public waste collection service, streets between buildings became dark and vermin-ridden, accumulating piles of waste that are in many cases several meters high.

Doh Eain, an NGO responsible for the creation of the highly visible “Yangon Wall” art campaign, had, under the NLD administration, transformed a number of these alleys into bright flourishing gardens and interactive community spaces.

Image: A back alley renovation project (courtesy of Doh Eain)

Now, local sources say that these emblems of a creative and vibrant new Yangon have fallen prey to damage. As the Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC) — now operating under the weak and corrupt control of the junta administration — fails to fulfill civil waste collection functions, many are once again becoming toxic spaces used for the disposal of waste.

“It seems like nobody was able to maintain the gardens during these hard times. I think it’s a civic responsibility to make a good environment for you and those around you,” one Yangon resident said. “Those living close to these areas such not pollute them — it is an old habit that needs to be eliminated during the revolution.” 

From 2018 to 2019, Doh Eain and YCDC began transforming downtown Yangon’s vast labyrinths of back alleys into vibrant community spaces; of the more than 20 back alley garden renovations in Yangon, 12 were performed by Doh Eain. 

A typical downtown Yangon back alley. Streets were closed off under the previous era of military rule.

However, this progress was quickly forgotten when violence hit the city’s streets. 

“We contacted residents once we transformed the alleys lining their homes into gardens and held opening ceremonies,” a spokesperson from Doh Eain told DVB. “Doh Eain had worked hard to maintain each garden following the monsoon season, and supported other community-based conservation activities.”

The group’s spokesperson said that challenges first appeared when the first wave of COVID-19 hit Burma in March 2020.

“Residents surrounding the alleyways decided to stop using the gardens and close them down. We discovered that some murals were discoloring, and that people had already begun dumping garbage as municipal sites filled. Many gardens are currently closed, so it is difficult to find out the current status of the areas,” the Doh Eain spokesperson said.

A Doh Eain garden project since the coup.

DVB notes through its own investigations that some of Doh Eain’s alleyway gardens remain clean and functional, despite neighborhood groups having blocked entrances and exits. Each garden is unique in its design, and cost roughly K10 million (US$5,600) per project.

“It is difficult to say how much it will cost to restore a back alley garden, as it really depends on the project. Each differs by its design, its key features, and the tools used in its maintenance.”

Doh Eain told DVB that, despite not being actively involved with the projects, it will continue to assist in maintenance work by coordinating with local neighborhoods.

The group’s first back alley renovation project was undertaken close to its former offices on 27th Street back in 2016.