Challenges Remain for Bagan Heritage Recognition

By May Sitt Paing 24 November 2015

BAGAN, Mandalay Division — “Hotel Project, No Trespassing,” reads the signboard in front of a wide expanse of land, the whir of heavy machinery drowning out birdsongs and the flutter of breeze through the nearby trees.

Scenes like this are increasingly common in Bagan, the site of an incalculable repository of cultural and historical heritage in the plains of central Burma, as development ramps up in anticipation of a tourism boom.

Among the people of Burma, the area evokes an image of beautiful pagodas and stupas set against still fields, a link to the era of the Pagan Kingdom of the 9th century.

But today, Bagan teems with passenger coaches and cargo trucks. Its outlying villages are crowded with shops and hotels, its restaurants vying eagerly for foreign visitors. The sheer scale of development over a short period of time has alarmed locals.

“The developers dig the earth, doing as they please,” said one Bagan resident, pointing at a new 100-acre hotel project. “This place is said to be the burial ground of royal families and King Anawratha. But they don’t value it.”

“They have turned this place into a hotel zone. Every business here is dominated by cronies. I don’t know who sold the land. We can’t stand seeing this.”

In response to concerns over the impact of tourism development, the Bagan Lovers’ Association was formed in 2005 to help keep the area around the archeological zone clean, perform philanthropic works and raise awareness around heritage issues. Their representations to the government have routinely fallen on deaf ears.

“We filed reports and complaints to government officials along with the evidence, but they do not take action,” said Min Naing, chairman of the Bagan Lovers’ Association. “You can’t replace this heritage. It is high time we preserve it now.”

“I have evidence that the Department of Archaeology, National Museum and Library have approved construction projects without scrutinizing them first,” said Chin Bo, a fellow member of the association. “Why do they allow five or six feet from ancient stupas? I can’t understand.”

Burma’s tourism industry has experienced significant growth since the nominally civilian government of President Thein Sein took office in 2011, and Bagan has entrenched itself as one of the top tourist destinations for foreign travelers.

In this respect, the government has accomplished a long-cherished ambition of the previous military regime, which evicted many villagers from the epicenter of the old city and embarked upon a crude effort to restore a large number of damaged temples.

The junta’s 1996 effort to secure a UNESCO World Heritage listing fell flat at a time when the country was internationally isolated by the events surrounding the military takeover, tourist arrivals remained stagnant as a result of a boycott called by the National League for Democracy.

Thein Lwin, the deputy director-general of Bagan Department of Archaeology, said that many of the concerns surrounding the area’s conservation and heritage protection dated to the construction approvals given to hotel owners during this period.

“All of those things were done in the time of previous government,” he told The Irrawaddy. “At the time there were no laws and that is why those kinds of hotels were permitted. These things are not done in this age.”

He added that the law prevented pagodas on the grounds of private hotels from being reserved for the exclusive enjoyment of hotel guests.

“Anyone can visit freely the pagodas and stupas in those hotels. Entry is not barred and hotel gates are not closed. Where we have heard about fencing in of pagodas, we are preparing to take actions against this.”

Burma’s Ministry of Culture is currently working with a number of international agencies to draw up a master plan for the conservation of Bagan’s archeological zone.

Though the 1996 push for World Heritage recognition was rejected, in October the Myazedi Stone Inscription in Bagan was last month included UNESCO Memory of the World register.

Bagan locals have criticized the department’s attempts to lay blame solely at the feet of the previous regime, saying that authorities have not taken swift action to address the potential threat of unsustainable tourism growth in the area.

“It does not matter who did this,” said Min Naing. “What we need it prompt action because heritage is irreplaceable.”