Mandalay – Locals from Bagan, the archaeological heart of Myanmar, urged the government on Thursday to declare safe and free zones for ancient pagodas and temples located inside hotel grounds and private compounds.
The Save Bagan civil society group told journalists there are about 100 pagodas and temples situated on land leased by hotels and in private compounds in Bagan. Authorities have so far done nothing to address the situation despite appeals from civil groups.
“We’ve submitted complaints over the past two years when we have had the chance to meet the regional minister and authorities from other related departments, but nothing has happened,” said Ko Myo Set San, a leader of Save Bagan.
The group said it has met several times with the chief minister of Mandalay Division, representatives of the Archaeological Department, Ministry of Culture and Religious Affairs, local administration officers and officials from the Ministry of Home Affairs in recent years.
“So far we’ve collected over 8,000 signatures from Bagan locals that were sent along with the complaint requesting safe and free areas be declared for those pagodas and temples inside hotel grounds and in private compounds,” he said.
The group sent the petition to State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, President U Win Myint, the Ministry of Culture and Religious Affairs, the Ministry of Home Affairs and the regional chief minister.
According to locals, the “ugly situation” is the result of past military government’s decision to permit the building of hotels in Bagan, starting in the 1990s.
“There are 22 pagodas inside the Eden Group’s hotel compound alone. Inside the Ayar Hotel compound, there is Aggatae Temple with its beautiful mural paintings. If visitors want to visit it, they need to get permission from the hotel first, which is bothersome,” Ko Myo Sat San explained. “We want to fence off those pagodas and temples, to separate them from the private compounds, and allow people to visit them with no conditions.”
The group said that when it sent its complaint to the Ministry of Culture and Religious Affairs, the minister, Thura U Aung Ko, replied that fencing might not be possible because the grounds were leased to the private sector [the hotel investors] on long terms.
“The minister told us that we would have to wait 15 or 20 years until the leases expire, but that nothing was certain. What if the investors renew their contracts?” said Ko Myo Sat San.
“Since Bagan is trying to be registered as a World Heritage site with UNESCO, we are very concerned that this ugly situation may affect that,” he added.
According to the Department of Archaeology, National Museum and Library, the pagodas and temples on private lands have already been declared safe zones, which allows members of the public to visit them freely between 6am to 6pm, every day.
“As for our department, we cannot do more than this yet, for this situation happened a long time ago and it will take time to resolve. There are many steps to negotiate with the investors and many other related government offices,” said U Aung Aung Kyaw, director of the Department of Archaeology, National Museum and Library’s Bagan branch, which is part of the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture.
“We also have concerns about this matter. So, we are making sure not to repeat the mistakes of the past, especially when we do conservation of our heritage. At the same time, we are carefully choosing the best way for the development of the region,” he said.
Apart from putting up fences to designate safe zones for the pagodas and temples, the petition also urges the government to investigate some hotels located on the banks of the Irrawaddy River that have dumped sand and soil to extend their riverside holdings.
“We’ve seen some hotels add sand to the river bank, and some have even built bungalows for their guests. We officially want to request the central government investigate such hotels and take action to conserve the nature of the Irrawaddy River,” Ko Myo Sat San said.
Bagan, the country’s major tourist attraction, is home to pagodas and temples dating from the 9th to the 13th centuries.
Since 1994, the country has sought to register the area as a UNESCO list of World Heritage Site. However, Bagan was initially ruled ineligible due to its failure to meet the requirements of World Heritage Site status, allegedly on account of mismanaged development plans and sub-standard, inauthentic restoration efforts under previous governments, especially in the 1990s.
In 2016, the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture again nominated Bagan for a UNESCO World Heritage Site listing.
As the required dossiers have been submitted, members of the World Heritage Site Committee are due to visit Bagan in mid-2018. The site’s nomination will be brought up for deliberation at UNESCO’s World Heritage Site convention in 2019.