MANDALAY — A team from Unesco, the United Nations’ cultural agency, is traveling to Bagan to conduct a comprehensive review of damage to historical pagodas and temples after a 6.8 magnitude earthquake hit central Burma on Wednesday evening.
Members of the team have expressed concern that premature efforts from local authorities to clear debris may disturb the archaeological record, result in losses to historical artifacts, and complicate eventual restoration efforts.
On Thursday morning, a company of Burma Army soldiers spotted cleaning up the debris at damaged temples caused alarm among locals. A video of them sweeping rubble at one temple has since spread over social media, prompting a mixed response.
“If they clean up the debris like that, how will the experts get reliable data?” said Min Naing Aung, a member of a Bagan appreciation group, who said he was aware of the imminent arrival of the Unesco team.
“We are also worried that ancient artifacts might get stolen or lost because of unsystematic cleaning and restoration, without anyone taking responsibility,” he said.
The earthquake struck at 5:04 p.m. on Thursday, 25 kilometers west of Chauk in Magwe Division, at a depth of 84 kilometers. It was felt across Burma, and in neighboring countries.
The Bagan Archaeological Department has cited damage to 187 pagodas and temples across the Bagan plain, including iconic favorites Sulamani, Ananda, Htilominlo, Myazedi, Shwesandaw, Lawkananda and Dhamma Yazaka, and the murals at Ananda Oakkyaung.
State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has sent notice to officials in the Bagan archaeological zone not to “rush” the restoration of the damaged pagodas, and to seek technical assistance from Unesco.
The temples of Bagan, dating from between the 9th and 13th centuries—when the Kingdom of Pagan ruled over much of lowland Burma—are considered Burma’s biggest tourist draw, although the ancient capital has yet to be granted World Heritage Site status, allegedly on account of sub-standard, inauthentic restoration efforts under previous governments.
Local Unesco officers traveling to the site said the UN agency would need the full collaboration of authorities, including from the government’s archaeological department, to maintain the historical value of the damaged temples and pagodas.
“We’ve already requested the department of archaeology to ensure that affected temples remain un-touched till the damage has been systematically documented,” said Ohnmar Myo, a Unesco project coordinator.
She said that a thorough survey would support future restoration work and aid Bagan’s candidacy as a Unesco World Heritage Site.
“We are highly concerned that no one touch or move away debris, because every single piece of these ancient temples has high historical and cultural value, which needs to be recorded,” she said.
“In addition, we would like for authorities in Bagan to ensure that no one goes near damaged temples, to prevent possible injuries and further damage,” she added.
The director of the Bagan Archaeological Department Aung Aung Kyaw said the department had “already requested the army to halt cleaning till we get the green light [to continue] from the experts.”
“We are also planning to restrict visitors to these [damaged] temples,” director Aung Aung Kyaw said.
On top of the survey, Unesco has said it would provide financial and technical assistance—in line with “international standards”—for the restoration of affected structures in Bagan.
“We very much hope there will be no pressure to ‘glitter up’ or overly renovate these damaged temples, as happened under previous governments, which would ruin their cultural value,” said Ohnmar Myo of Unesco.
According to the Ministry of Information, outside Bagan, 33 other historic temples and pagodas were damaged across Burma, in Meiktila, Myingyan, Yamaethin, Taungtha, Salae, Sagaing and Mrauk-U.
In Chauk of Magwe Division, the closest town to the earthquake’s epicenter, two buildings developed cracks, and a portico of the township police station collapsed—but more serious damage has not been reported, nor any casualties.
“I was standing and almost fell down as the earthquake hit the town with a roaring sound. It shook for three to five minutes and the whole town filled with shouts, cries and sirens from fire engines,” said Chauk resident Htoo Win.
“Everyone rushed outside of the buildings and some old people even vomited because of dizziness. I’m glad that most of the buildings and people are safe but we are still afraid of aftershocks,” he added.
In Pakokku of Magwe Division, a man died and another was injured after the roof of a tobacco factory collapsed.
In Yenangyaung, also in Magwe Division, two girls, seven and 15 years old, died as a toilet in the compound of a pagoda collapsed in on them, according to locals.
In Bagan, which sits in Mandalay Division near the border with Magwe Division, an Italian tourist watching the sunset from a temple fell and injured herself due to the quake, and was sent to Mandalay General Hospital, according to the Ministry of Information.