Residents mourn loss of banyan trees as cleanup starts

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 May, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 May, 2008, 12:00am

A chainsaw is now the most sought-after item in Yangon. With the first clear, dry day in weeks, residents of Myanmar's old capital yesterday started the city-wide clean up in earnest.

With power and water supplies at least partially restored, the priority is now cutting through the remains of hundreds of giant trees that have collapsed, falling across houses, shops and walls, their root systems ripping up pavements.

As they walked the streets to take stock of the damage, many residents mourned the loss of old banyans, flame trees and tropical broadleaf trees that made their British colonial-era city the most leafy in the region.

'It is like losing old friends,' said 65-year-old Soe Win Aung as he strolled along Dhamazedi Road, surveying the damage and stroking the fallen trunks of several favoured old giants.

'Many of these trees have been landmarks. I saw them as a boy and grew to love them as an old man. Now they are gone. The city looks bald.

'Our lives have been tough in the last few years. The city is again becoming dilapidated and gaping holes are appearing in the streets. But many of us used to console each other by saying at least we had our trees. Now we have lost them.'

The mighty banyans - some hundreds of years old, with locals fond of placing little Buddhist shrines among their branches - are the hardest hit, while some flame trees are still standing, if tattered.

Less revered coconut palms and swamp casuarinas - both suited to the hardy conditions of the coast - have mostly survived.

'The carnage just shows how strong Cyclone Nargis was as these trees have stood for generations,' Soe Win Aung said. 'The old people are saying it was the strongest storm to hit Yangon in 300 years, and the loss of all the old trees is the proof, they say.'

While soldiers have been cleaning up around key official buildings, residents have been left to tackle the job themselves.

Many are talking of weeks of work ahead to clear the streets, unblock drains and repair roofs.

Other residents were consoling themselves with the fact that the loss of the trees means that the 92-metre gilded spire of the Shwedagon Pagoda is now visible at street level all over the city.

Surrounded by several previously lush reserves, only the top of the stupa was visible from all but the surrounding streets because of the dense foliage.

'I've just been wandering around looking at it from all over the place,' said market trader Ky Aung in Lanmadaw Road. 'It suddenly looks new again and when you see it where you weren't expecting it, you just stop in the street and stare.'

The pagoda is considered the leading icon of Yangon. Believed to have been built in the 6th century, it is the most sacred Buddhist site in the country. Downtown Yangon boasts one of the richest architectural legacies in Southeast Asia. Largely untouched after independence by the crippling 'Burmese Road to Socialism' of dictator Ne Win, the city's military rulers have done little to change things either.

Moves towards economic reform and fast growth in the mid-1990s have since faltered, slowing development, and many residents describe their city as frozen in time.

Cyclone Nargis may yet prove to have forced some of the biggest changes on the city in years.