Than Zaw Oo: ‘A Natural Disaster Can’t Devalue Bagan’s Heritage’

By Tin Htet Paing 25 August 2016

A powerful 6.8 magnitude earthquake struck central Burma at 5:04 p.m. on Wednesday. Centered about 15 miles west of Chauk, it damaged 187 temples in the ancient capital Bagan, a town north of the epicenter. The Irrawaddy spoke to Than Zaw Oo, director of Burma’s branch of the World Heritage Site Committee, about the government’s restoration plan.

Please tell me about the condition and severity of the damage in Bagan following the earthquake tremors.

Because temples in Bagan experienced a major quake in 1975, some damages were to temple restorations from after that time. But, these damages could also have impacted the original structures, as these restorations were attached to the originals.

According to recent statements from the government, we are aware that respective teams are heading to the affected areas in Bagan. What are the plans regarding the damage?

The first thing we have to do is an assessment. We have a GIS [Geographic Information System] team in Bagan and other GIS teams from across the country are heading to Bagan to [conduct] inventory and assess the damage to the temple.

Also, security becomes important for damaged temples. We have concerns about precious objects that are enshrined inside. It’s possible that we should leave some of the damaged areas as they are for the time being, and restore them later with the help of archaeology experts. Currently, our branch in Bagan is taking care of security and collecting data on the damage. After that, we will assess which temples suffered the most severe damage and which repairs should be prioritized.

Depending on the assessment, the next step would be to protect the temples from rain by covering them. This is urgent. We can’t talk about it and waste time. We must do it right away. Only once the temples are protected from the rain can we continue doing other work.

Will this damage have an impact on Bagan’s bid to become a UNESCO world heritage site?

A natural disaster will not impact Bagan’s bid to become a UNESCO world heritage site. It [the disaster] didn’t happen from human impact, [but] natural causes. A natural disaster can’t devalue Bagan’s heritage.

If it won’t devalue the heritage, could it enhance it since some inappropriate restorations cited by UNESCO were destroyed in the quake?

Our country has a Buddhist majority. The community is very generous and has over-repaired Bagan’s ancient temples. We explained this to conservation organizations and they understood. We showed them evidence of the renovations that were done after the 10th century. But in recent years, we have let them know our methods for restoring temples with regard to tradition and ancient technology. We let them check our restoration work and request their guidance as well. As far as I understand—and according to my experience—the damage is not going to interrupt Bagan’s bid to become a world heritage site.

You mentioned that most damage could have been to renovations carried out after 1975. Can you identify specifically when this work was done? Some people say that these improper renovations were carried out under the management of U Khin Nyunt, the former Chief of Intelligence and Prime Minister.

I am on the way to Bagan now and have yet to check the damage. But, we have already confessed our past conservation errors, which were partly motivated by the generosity of our community. I don’t want to point a finger at anyone, anymore, regarding these faults. We are all to blame.

Please comment further on the current situation in Bagan.

We have disaster risk management and preparedness in conservation plans for Bagan’s temples. But as we are aware, Burma ranks second in the ‘most at risk’ countries for natural disasters in the world and is in a very fragile situation. This is a fact that we can’t deny. We also have budget allocations for renovations in the case of natural disasters. But currently, the damage is massive and we will only understand how severe it is in about one week to 10 days. The first priority is to collect data about the damage and protect the affected temples from rain.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.