Educating the Public About Asbestos: The History
In November 2016, World Monuments Fund organized a public event, the “Asbestos Building Materials Workshop,” in Yangon, Myanmar. The workshop—the first of its kind in Myanmar—related to WMF’s project at Judson First Baptist Church, as well as to the larger building inventory and general health issues in Myanmar; although thousands of buildings contain asbestos materials, there are no national laws or regulations regarding the removal of those materials. Following the discovery of asbestos in the corrugated sheet roof at the First Baptist Church—still an active place of worship for the local congregation—WMF enlisted international experts to help with the safe removal of the materials, and to take part in the educational public workshop. At the workshop, engineer Wai Yar Aung presented his research on the development of the asbestos building materials industry in Myanmar.
Founded in the mid-nineteenth century, the Bombay Burmah Trading Company was a private business focused on trade in tea, coffee, cardamom, cocoa, rubber and palm oil segments, starch from tapioca, logging of timber, and boat building/repairs. Like many private non-Burmese businesses of its time, it endured political transformations through the nation’s emerging independence only to find its assets nationalized during the 1962 Revolutionary Council Government coup d’etat (through which the military took control of the nation); as a result, the former privately-held company was put under governmental authority.
Operations then fell to oversight by the government’s No. 1 Ministry of Industry, Ceramics Industry Department, and soon asbestos products were introduced to the company’s pursuits with facilities for fabricating roof sheeting and ceiling/wall panels a central feature. Production continued until the 1988 uprising, and after temporarily closing, operations were reconfigured directly under the military regime’s No. 1 Ministry of Industry. Because of the affordability, durability, and fire resistance of asbestos, the military expanded fabrication and installed asbestos-based building products in government buildings, often in remodeling schemes rather than new construction. Those same advantages of asbestos (affordability, durability, and fire resistance) also led to private sector sales of the material.
Competition from abroad, mainly in later years from regional countries, finally led to the 2004 closing of all of the government’s asbestos production facilities. Since then the Yangon shipyard warehouse facility has been demolished, but three manufacturing operations, although they are abandoned, still remain in Ahlone, Pawkan and Mhawbi, just outside of Yangon. These properties are now under the municipality’s authority.
Photography on this page: Tim Webster, 2016.