Arson at Ancient Temple in Myanmar World Heritage Site Prompts Questions Over Security

By Zue Zue 10 June 2020

YANGON— An arson took place early Tuesday morning at Loka-hteik-pan Temple, a Buddhist temple that houses some of the best-preserved murals in the UNESCO World Heritage city of Bagan.

Of the 3,822 temples in the east of the Irrawaddy River in Bagan, 462 of them have mural paintings. Loka-hteik-pan Temple, a 12th century temple in old Bagan, is renowned for its well-preserved murals depicting Buddha’s life.

The interior of the temple is kept locked behind an iron gate to prevent damage to the murals; the gate is covered with bamboo blinds. On Tuesday morning, the bamboo blinds were set on fire.

Murals of Buddha’s life inside Loka-hteik-pan Temple in Bagan. / Myo Swe Than

There was little damage, as the fire was put out immediately, according to Dr. Than Htike of the Bagan branch of the Department of Archaeology, National Museum and Library.

“It was arson. We found turpentine. We arrived shortly after the blinds caught fire. We arrived in time and were able to put out the fire,” he said.

Local police, tourism police and officials from the Department of Archaeology, National Museum and Library inspected the scene after the arson. A case was opened with the local police station for damaging ancient buildings.

“As turpentine was found at the scene, we can conclude that it was arson. It might be either a deliberate attempt to destroy an ancient building, or the perpetrator wanted to show that they can do this to such an important pagoda,” said heritage conservation expert Daw Ohmar Myo. “I view it as a deliberate challenge to the security of famous pagodas in Bagan.”

On Monday and Tuesday, treasures were stolen from eight pagodas in Bagan, according to Ko Myint Naing of the Bagan Tour Guide Association. The financial value of the stolen treasures is still being determined.

“I want more budget and more staff for the security of the pagodas. Rather than the [existing] security section under a department [the Department of Archaeology, National Museum and Library], I want a heritage police force established. Only then will they be able to carry out night patrols. Installation of CCTV cameras at important places will also help monitor for suspicious entries,” said Ko Myint Naing.

Daw Ohmar Myo also called for an increased budget to provide security for pagodas in Bagan and for establishing a heritage police.

Murals of Buddha’s life inside Loka-hteik-pan Temple in Bagan. / Myo Swe Than

“Whatever the reason behind the arson is, it is clear that security is very poor in Bagan. Bagan pagodas lack an appropriate security apparatus, which they deserve for their archeological and historical value,” she said.

The Bagan branch of the archeology department has 30 security guards, six of whom are assigned to guard the museum, the palace and the office, leaving only 24 security guards available for the security of Bagan’s temples. Dr. Than Htike said that the guards work with local police and the Bagan Tour Guide Association, which has over 100 members, to carry out patrols for pagoda security.

The department plans to carry out patrols in the early morning and at night, he said. There are a total of 3,837 stupas, temples and other Buddhist religious buildings in Bagan, which is a major tourist draw in Myanmar.

Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko.

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