Bagan Makes UNESCO List, but Challenges Remain

By Zarni Mann 8 July 2019

MANDALAY—After years of effort, Bagan, the archaeological zone and major tourist attraction in central Myanmar, was finally inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List at the World Heritage Committee’s 43th session Saturday.

Bagan, a major tourist attraction in central Myanmar, houses more than 3,000 pagodas and temples dating from the 9th to the 13th centuries.

Despite being inscribed on the prestigious list, many challenges lie ahead for local and foreign experts, government institutions and even local residents.

“This is just the beginning. We will face many challenges ahead in the conservation work [needed] to maintain the value of the heritage site while taking control of the social development impacts,” said U Sun Oo, an architect on a team tasked with conserving the ancient temples and pagodas of Bagan.

In the past, the ancient buildings were repaired according to common local procedures that did not meet international standards for heritage preservation, decreasing Bagan’s value as a heritage site, he said.

“When we talk about Bagan, we can’t focus only on the temples and pagodas, but the whole plain which these valuable ancient [structures] inhabit. Conservation for this region will also need to consider social development impacts. In the past, authorities neglected this and allowed the building of modern structures, including road expansions, lamp posts, hotels and more,” U Sun Oo said.

“Those modern structures have already damaged the value of our heritage, so we will need to take these as examples not to be repeated. Otherwise, the uniqueness of Bagan will perish,” he added.

However, inscription on UNESCO’s World Heritage List helps secure the site from mismanagement with the inclusion of international experts and monitoring, which could prevent any further damage, he said.

“Whoever leads the management team is the most important person. That person should be someone who concentrates only on Bagan and takes full responsibility. It would be a shame if Bagan were delisted or put on an in-danger list. We will have to follow every measure stated in the management plan proposed to UNESCO,” he said.

Concerns over hotels and resorts within the site

Much concern has been raised over the approximately 25 hotels located in the heart of Bagan’s monument zone.

In 2016 the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture and the Department of Archaeology, National Museum and Library held a series of meetings with hotel owners to negotiate relocation plans.

According to leaked dossiers the archaeology department had planned to submit to UNESCO in January 2018, the hotels and resorts would be made to move by 2028.

“All hotels and resorts located within the site, excluding those in towns that conform to the legal provisions, must be phased out by 2028. All further work on such resorts must stop. The hotels shall be entirely removed and the area shall be rehabilitated to become an archaeological area again. Procedures need to be clarified with the respective owners,” the document read.

However, the department’s director general told The Irrawaddy that the relocation plan is still being considered and that the department could not confirm plans or dates.

“We can’t give the details or a confirmation because this is just a concept and we still have many steps to take. In the case of its impact on heritage [status], maybe the whole hotel or only a part of the hotel will have to be moved, but this is still under negotiation,” said U Kyaw Oo Lwin, director general of the Department of Archaeology, National Museum and Library.

“We are consulting with the experts and the long term, detail, tourism management and conservation plans are yet to be finished. We are trying our best according to the law to balance [all interests and] to receive the best results for both heritage preservation and business development, as these are sensitive matters for the region,” he added.

The Nan Myint viewing tower, located in the Aureum Palace Hotel; the Bagan Thande Hotel; the Bagan Hotel (River View); the Bagan Thiripyitsaya Sanctuary Resort; the Hotel @Tharabar Gate; and the Ayeyar Hotel—all located within the archaeological site—will be the most affected hotels if the relocation plan is confirmed.

“We would like to assure locals and hotels which are located outside of the site that they will not be relocated, and the street stalls and souvenir shops can still operate,” he added.

In the late 1990s, the military government allowed the hotels to be built within the archaeological zone, known locally as the Old Bagan area. Some of the hotels were built very close to or even around ancient temples, housing them inside their hotel.

In the late 2000s, the 60-meter-high Nan Myint viewing tower was erected in the Aureum Palace hotel and was widely criticized for obstructing the view of the plain, which naturally offers a scenic view of the ancient temples.

Locals’ voices

Bagan locals are perhaps the happiest about Bagan’s new UNESCO status, a prize they’ve long awaited.

But, they told The Irrawaddy, they want more transparency on the conservation, tourism management and detail plans, to be able to watch over their heritage.

“We are very glad Bagan has finally become a World Heritage Site. However, we want transparency over the management of its conservation, and the responsibilities and the budgets [of those conserving it] as well,” said Ma Maw Maw Aung, a businesswoman with the Bagan House Lacquerware Workshop.

Locals said there had been no transparency in the past and they did not have a chance to air their voice on conservation issues.

“In the past, we knew nothing about the conservation plans and no one ever listened to the locals’ voices, which impacted the region. We do not want to repeat that. We hope every institution involved in this listens to the local voices and lets us participate in the conservation of our heritage,” she added.

The country had sought to get the site on the UNESCO list since 1994. However, it was rejected and deemed unable to meet World Heritage Site-status requirements, allegedly on account of mismanaged development plans and sub-standard, inauthentic restoration efforts carried out under previous governments—especially in the 1990s.

In 2014 the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture again tried to nominate Bagan for a UNESCO World Heritage Site listing, submitting paperwork in 2016.

A 6.8 magnitude earthquake hit central Myanmar in August of that year, damaging around 200 historic pagodas and temples and shocking archaeologists, increasing interest in and concern over the nomination process.

In the end, all went according to plan.

The International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) and members of the World Heritage Site Committee visited Bagan in September last year and the ICOMOS ground inspection team’s findings were submitted to UNESCO and brought up for deliberation Saturday at the 43th session of UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee, in Baku, Azerbaijan.

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