My grandfather’s office

A nostalgic visit to Yangon’s grand Secretariat building enables the author to better imagine the beloved grandfather she never met.


WHEN CLOUDS part after a monsoon downpour, the red and yellow bricks of the iconic Secretariat building seem to glow in a steamy haze. The four-storey Victorian-style building is a stanch, yet elegant anomaly in the busy streets of downtown Yangon.

On a rainy day in the 1990s, I remember peering from the back seat of my uncle’s car and asking my mother, “What’s that building?” My childhood imagination was entranced by the mysteriously still compound and its forbidding iron gates.

“That’s the old Parliament House. It’s called the Secretariat,” she replied. “Your grandfather used to work there a long, long time ago,” she added, in a voice in which I sensed sadness and pride. My grandfather, who died decades before I was born, was a parliamentary secretary in newly independent Burma.

Together with the postcards he sent to my grandmother when she was studying in England, his pencil sketches of faceless figures, and a moth-eaten photo taken on his wedding day, the Secretariat was all I had to try and construct an image of him. “That’s my grandfather’s office,” I thought.

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During my childhood in New York, I travelled to Yangon almost every year to visit my grandmother. Every time we strolled downtown, I would gaze into the overgrown Secretariat compound and imagine my grandfather striding past its manicured gardens in a freshly pressed tike pone.

After the military seized power in 1962, the use of the building where independence hero Bogyoke Aung San and eight others were assassinated on July 19, 1947, was gradually phased out and it succumbed to the elements and a lack of maintenance. After Nay Pyi Taw became the national capital in 2005, the Secretariat was completely abandoned.

Last rainy season I travelled to Yangon for the first time since my grandmother died in 2016.

One hot July afternoon, I visited the Secretariat and was welcomed at the Theinbyu Road entrance by a friendly attendant who guided me to the southern end of the building. I climbed a grand spiral staircase to reach my destination, the Pyinsa Rasa art gallery, where colourful creations adorned whitewashed walls.

I walked the long exterior corridors, enjoying the sound of my footsteps. I was pleased to be able to visit the gallery and see evidence of restoration work. After so many years of silence, it was as if the building had been given a voice again.

I had nothing else to do that day and spent hours enjoying my time in the gallery. As a passionate amateur artist, I imagined that my grandfather would have loved to see it, too.

My visit was made possible by the decision to regularly open the Secretariat to the public, although only a small section of the southern wing. Peering into the compound as a child, I never imagined having the opportunity to enter.

Visiting the Secretariat enabled me to better appreciate a nation’s past, which I had only ever read about. I could also reflect on my relationship with my grandfather, whom I had never met. History is embedded in buildings and other places as much as it is in time. We can’t stop time, but preserving buildings and other places at least means we can keep history alive.

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