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Preparations Underway at Ancient Pyu City Considered for World Heritage Status

Lawi Weng The Irrawaddy

PROME, Pegu Division—The ancient city of Sri Ksetra is undergoing preparations ahead of a visit next month from a Unesco team, which will investigate the suitability of the site in Burma’s Pegu division for World Heritage status, an official said.

Sri Ksetra, located on the Irrawaddy River about 180 miles from Rangoon, was built between the 7th and 9th centuries A.D. by the Pyu, who dominated central Burma for almost a millennium before their culture died out. The ruins of what was once Southeast Asia’s largest walled city cover a circular area of about 18 square miles, with the remains of a royal palace at the center.

The Burmese government put forward Sri Ksetra as a potential World Heritage site to Unesco in March, and the U.N. body agreed to visit the area to assess the site, according to Win Kyaing, director of the Department of Archaeology, National Museum and Library.

“[Unesco] will visit here in the third week of October,” he said.

The site is on the tentative list for Unesco (or the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Heritage status, along with the other Pyu cities of Beikthano-Myo in Magway Division and Hanlin in Sagaing Division. The Pyu sites together form one of eight historic sites in Burma on the tentative list for World Heritage status.

No sites in the country have yet been granted full World Heritage status, but the government is keen to reap the economic benefits of Unesco recognition. According to state newspaper the New Light of Myanmar, Culture Minister Aye Myint Kyu visited locals at Hanlin on Sept. 7 to inform them about that site’s proposed listing.

And in the anticipation of the Unesco visit next month, the Ministry of Culture has accelerated work to restore parts of Sri Ksetra this month. Groups of workers were brushing brickwork on the city’s walls, cutting back bushes in its moat and building new roads around the site during a visit this weekend.

“We have about 70 civil servants who work on the project. We have structural conservation, chemical conservation and engineering conservation experts,” said Win Kyaing, who spoke to the Irrawaddy while showing a group of foreigners around Sri Ksetra on Sunday.

The site of Sri Ksetra city currently has 14 villages, populated by a total of more than 10,000 people. The Burmese government settled the people around the old site from 1989 due to a shortage of space in nearby towns, according to Win Kyaing.

Win Kyaing said government staff were now checking for damage to the site and taking stock of the number of people who have settled around the ruins.

“If we find that there are people staying there, we will give them education and awareness,” he said, explaining that local residents would be instructed on how to avoid damaging to the ruins.

He said the authorities did not intentionally settle people where ruins are located, but some may have moved into those areas and may pose a threat to the ruins.

“When [authorities] settled the people, they did it where it was not the site of the old city. But, some people occupied at the old city site later,” he said.

Win Kyaing said some families would have to be relocated from the ruins if the site is recognized, but he could not say how many people would have to move.

“It is important that the idea of preserving old city is spread to the local people. When the people are aware of the need to preserve it, our job is 80 percent done,” said Win Kyaing.

The Ministry of Culture has identified and logged 53 places of interest in the city, with another 37 places yet to be investigated. The locations include the palace, pagodas, cemeteries, tombs, a monastery, monuments and others architectural sites.

The project to conserve the site requires assistance in education, technical expertise and finance, according to Win Kyaing.

“We do not have enough budget,” said Win Kyaing, referring to the current undertakings of building and repairing roads and bridges and cleaning the site.

“We need large amount of budget indeed. But we have to do our project with limited with financial got it from ministry.”

Yu Yu Swe, a civil servant working at Sri Ksetra Musem, said the number of tourists visiting the area was on the up after news spread that the site might be listed by Unesco.

“We now have about 1,000 tourists a month. We found there are more people visiting in here after the government proposed it to Unesco,” said Yu Yu Swe.

At present, the site lacks signage to aid visitors, making for confusion among tourists, many of whom rent motorcycles to tour the ruins. Foreigners pay 5,000 kyat, or about $5.20, to visit the ancient site and museum. Burmese pay 200 kyat.

Yu Yu Swe said some tourists come by bus and others come from tour boats docking on the banks of the Irrawaddy.

World Heritage status would likely boost tourism and create jobs, but with the government’s plans for their future not clear, locals are concerned about the threat of evictions.

Nyi Nyi Aung, who has for the past 15 years lived near Rahanda lake, part of the historic site, said locals were content with their lives in the area, where they have plentiful food from the land.

“I don’t hope to get rich. I am happy my current life,” he said, adding that he said that his family is worried about where they would be relocated to in the event they are moved.

He also said villagers had been given assurances they would not be moved.

“We are worried when we have to move out from here. [National League for Democracy member of Parliament] Daw Sandar Min told us once that we didn’t have to move out from here. We are happy to hear this,” he said.

Kaung Myat Thu, a resident of Prome who tends a garden within the historic site, said that local people had sold antiques found among the ruins to unofficial agents, despite the government offering rewards in exchange for relics.

“We heard there are many people who found gold pots or ancient Buddha images. The people don’t give them to the government because they don’t trust them,” Kaung Myat Thu said.