Bagan on Course for World Heritage Listing: Unesco Expert

By Paul Vrieze 13 October 2014

BAGAN, Mandalay Division — The temple complex of Bagan in central Burma will become a Unesco World Heritage Site within the next few years, a Unesco expert said on Sunday, adding that Culture Ministry officials and international experts had taken the first steps toward drawing up a World Heritage nomination and a protection plan for Bagan.

“I think everyone has agreed to move ahead with the process,” said Kai Weise, a World Heritage expert working on the nomination, when asked whether Bagan would become a World Heritage Site.

“This is an opportunity to find solutions, and Bagan is of outstanding universal value. So it’s a question of going through a process. As a site you can say it should be on the World Heritage List,” he said.

Weise was a lead speaker during a three-day consultation meeting held at Bagan Museum over the weekend, where Minister of Culture Aye Myint Kyu, Unesco representatives and about two dozen international experts discussed how they could formulate a nomination that justifies Bagan’s inclusion on the list because of its “outstanding universal value” for humanity.

Completing a nomination generally takes between two and three years, while the World Heritage Committee can take up to 18 months to process a nomination, according to Unesco representatives.

Bagan’s listing would mobilize international funding and support for protection, management and research at the site. It would also boost tourist visitor numbers and bring socio-economic benefits to local communities, who are to be consulted on a management plan for Bagan, Unesco said.

In 1996, Burma’s then-military regime had tried to enlist the ancient site as a Unesco heritage site, but the bid by the regime, which was in the midst of a severe political crackdown at the time, fell flat due to a lack of international support.

In June this year, Unesco accepted the first inscription of a Burmese heritage site, the Pyu Ancient Cities in Prome, on the World Heritage List.

Aye Myint Kyu said Bagan’s World Heritage listing would raise Burma’s international prestige and strengthen its tourism sector, adding that it would be welcomed by the public.

“We have the inscription of the Pyu Cities and after that the people began to ask whether we would enlist other monuments. So these inscription processes are important issues and contribute to the relationship between the government and the people,” he said.

The Bagan area covers about 26 square km (16 miles) and was constructed from the 9th to the 11th century, a period when some 55 Buddhist kings ruled the Bagan Dynasty. There are more than 3,000 temples in the area; 120 temples have stucco paintings and 460 have mural paintings that are in urgent need of protective measures.

During the meeting, experts proposed boundaries for a preliminary World Heritage protection zone for the monuments. Weise said the proposed zone roughly overlaps with the current protection zone defined by the Archeological Department, with the exception that Unesco also recommends that an ancient stupa on a mountain top on the other side of the Irrawaddy River be included.

Weise said a Bagan protection plan should not only focus on preserving the monuments, but also the landscape, agricultural settings and intangible heritage, such as local cultural traditions of worshipping and holding festivals at the temples.

The rapid expansion of urban areas in the villages of New Bagan and Nyaung Oo, which fall outside of the protection zone, and the development of hotels, guesthouses and other tourism infrastructure should be temporarily halted, the Unesco expert said.

“We’re actually proposing a six-month moratorium on [urban] development, and that we set up a [zoning] plan for these critical areas in the next six months,” said Weise.

Burma has experienced a rapid increase in overseas tourist visitors in recent years and most foreign tourists visit Bagan. Apart from a rapid growth in tourism, the temples are also at risk from flooding, which happens every few years. Small earthquakes rock the region regularly, while a large earthquake in 1975 caused severe damage and led to the collapse of hundreds of temples.

Controversial Restorations, Junta-Era Evictions

In 1992, the then-military regime ordered a detailed survey and the start of restoration works on the historic temples, often with the help of local citizens eager to gain Buddhist merit.

In many cases methods were used that have been criticized by international experts, who said little attention was paid to historical accuracy and that damage was caused to some of the structures’ historical value. Hundreds of smaller temples were reportedly also raised anew from the ruins using new construction materials, and many of the temple structures seen by tourists today are no more than one or two decades old.

In 2005, a Unesco expert criticized the restoration works in The New York Times saying, “A Disney-style fantasy version of one of the world’s great religious and historical sites is being created by that government. They use the wrong materials to build wrongly shaped structures on top of magnificent ancient stupas.”

The Irrawaddy understands that much of the closed-door discussions during the first two days of the Unesco consultation meeting focused on how these controversial restoration works could be justified in the nomination of Bagan for a World Heritage listing.

A solution was found in arguing that the practice of renovating pagodas is part of Burma’s Buddhist tradition of merit-making, and that the extensive regime-era restoration works simply fit within this tradition.

Asked about the discussions, Weise, the World Heritage expert, said, “The various conservation activities [for merit-making]… have always taken place, but the most recent one is always the one that people focus on.”

He added, “It’s no use looking into the past constantly, because then you get stuck there. So now we say: ‘OK, where do we stand today, in what direction can we move and what aspects need to be controlled?’”

During the early 1990s, the military regime also decided to forcibly relocate a village that had developed since the 1970s within the walls of Old Bagan. Hundreds of residents were forced to relocate to a barren site some 7 km away, called New Bagan, which is outside of the Archeological Zone.

However, well-connected businessmen were allowed to develop four large hotels—Tharabar, Nan Myint, Bagan and Than De hotels—inside Old Bagan. Bagan Museum was also built inside the protected zone in 1996, while the 18-hole Bagan Golf Resort and a 60-meter high glass and concrete viewing tower were built in the heart of the archeological zone.

Unesco experts and government officials made scant mention of these buildings and the forced relocation during the public part of the consultation meeting on Sunday.

Several local activists, however, raised the issue and said small local businesses in New Bagan were suffering from restrictions being imposed by local authorities for the supposed protection of Bagan, while large hotels continued to operate and expand without any restraints.

“When the Bagan people get a little money, they want to be allowed to invest that money in New Bagan… that place is outside of the zone, therefore we [residents] believe we should be allowed to build small hotels and a small guesthouses to support ourselves,” said Ye Myint, one of a small group of local activists called the Bagan Lovers’ Association.

“We want equal rules and regulations. I want to build a small hotel near my house, but I’m not rich, I’m not a crony that’s why I can’t do it yet.”

“They kicked our people out from the Bagan City walls, but after that they allowed the Tharabar, Nan Myint, Bagan and Than De hotels to be built there,” said Ye Myint, a former Bagan tourist guide. “I think that if they want to get World Heritage List [for Bagan], these bigger hotels have to also be slowly removed from the Archeological Zone.”