Conservationists have criticized the military regime’s plan to create a public recreation area alongside the walls of Mandalay Palace in Myanmar’s former royal capital, saying the scheme will do more harm than good to the country’s cultural heritage.
Work on the park began earlier this month, despite the fact that the palace is Mandalay’s landmark building. The project reportedly includes playgrounds, a car park and landscaping with non-indigenous plants, all to be built alongside the palace’s walls and moat.
Local conservationists have objected to the new construction in Mandalay’s cultural zone, saying that the project will obstruct views of the palace walls and moat, as well as having a negative impact on the structure itself.
“Parking facilities, lamp-posts and plants will hide the palace walls from sight. This will be the major impact of the project,” said a conservationist who wished to remain anonymous.
“There will be increased pedestrian and vehicle traffic because of the project, and so there will be increased vibration. Under successive governments, heritage conservation was subjugated to other necessities. The palace walls have not been properly maintained either. So the project will only do more harm,” he added.
The park is also a blatant violation of the 2015 Law on the Preservation and Protection of Ancient Buildings, which requires a minimum distance of 120 feet between new and ancient buildings and specifies that any new building close to a heritage structure should not exceed 30 feet in height.
“The recreation park project is unacceptable. Mandalay is the only place in Myanmar where the moat and the city walls are in relatively good condition. Although there are remains of palace walls and moats in other ancient cities, they are not in as good a condition as the ones in Mandalay. They need to be conserved,” said heritage management specialist Daw Ohmar Myo.
There have been criticisms that the junta failed to conduct a heritage impact assessment, which is necessary for projects being implemented in ancient heritage zones. The regime also failed to consult with experts prior to the start of construction of the park.
Cultural assets should be a top priority for those managing Mandalay, which is a showcase for Myanmar’s cultural heritage, said Daw Ohmar Myo.
Successive military regimes were known for their poor management of ancient heritage sites including Bagan, a temple city which is over 1,100 years old and was designated a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 2019.
Myanmar had sought to get Bagan on the UNESCO list since 1994. However, it was rejected for not meeting World Heritage Site standards, allegedly because of mismanaged development plans and sub-standard, inauthentic restoration efforts carried out under previous governments, especially in the 1990s.
Established between 1857 and 1859, Mandalay was the last royal capital of Myanmar and home to the country’s last two monarchs, King Mindon and his son King Thibaw. After the British annexed Upper Myanmar in 1885, British troops were stationed in Mandalay Palace and knew it as the Glass Palace.
The palace and sections of its walls were badly damaged in bombing raids by the British and their allies in 1945 as they attempted to retake Mandalay from the Japanese army, which occupied Myanmar for around three years during World War II. The palace walls were repaired under the Revolutionary Council government led by General Ne Win.
The palace complex was reconstructed in the late 1990s by the then military regime. Today, the palace is partially open to the public, while Myanmar military units are also stationed inside the compound.
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