Putting Bagan on the World Heritage map

It is likely that the Pyu cities and not, as many would assume, Bagan will become the first World Heritage site in Myanmar.

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Published in The Myanmar Times on 22 October 2012

Bagan, by Kaung Thet, The Myanmar Times
Bagan, by Kaung Thet, The Myanmar Times

Few can deny Bagan’s breathtaking beauty. The ancient city was described by National Geographic as “one of Southeast Asia’s greatest archaeological heritage sites”, while Japan’s permanent delegation to UNESCO describes it as one of Asia’s “major historical landmarks.” UNESCO’s culture program specialist in Myanmar said he knows of no other site in the world with as many archeological remains.

“Bagan has far more than Angkor Wat. Three thousand temples is a massive amount,” Mr Takahiko Makino told The Myanmar Times.

Yet for almost 20-years, Bagan’s application to be listed as a World Heritage site has lain dormant. The Myanmar government nominated the site in 1996, two years after it signed the World Heritage Convention. This created an obligation, “in the period between signing and ratification… to refrain from acts that would defeat the object and purpose of the treaty.” According to UNESCO, Myanmar has begun to implement the treaty. Once ratified, an international legal obligation will exist to protect the country’s national heritage, in addition to local laws in place.

According to UNESCO’s website, Bagan’s nomination was referred back to the government “due to a lack of site boundary definition and legislative and management plan.” Seven other sites in Myanmar were placed on the tentative list in 1996, but none are listed at the international level.

As Mr Makino explains, a referral doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world for Bagan’s World Heritage bid. The World Heritage Committee, which comprises 21 rotating state parties, meets once a year to accept, refer or reject nominated sites. In Bagan’s case, says Mr Makino, being referred means that “more information is needed” about Bagan in order for the committee to make a yes or no decision. For the past 20-years, this is a task UNESCO has supported in coordination with the government and on several occasions, with funding from Italy (which incidentally, has more World Heritage sites than any other country).

However it is likely that the Pyu cities and not, as many would assume, Bagan will become the first World Heritage site in Myanmar. Mr Makino told The Myanmar Times that the government has been working on submitting its first nomination dossier to the World Heritage Centre in 2013 for the 2000-year-old cities of Beikthano-Myo, Halin and Tharay-Khit-taya (Sri Ksetra). A decision will be made by the committee in 2014.

As Mr Makino suggests, “Because Bagan is such a large scale [site], perhaps the government thought it more practical to focus on the Pyu cities first. The timeframe depends on the scale of a site, the data available and the quality of its condition.”

Considering Bagan’s massive proportions, the exact size of which are still undefined for the purposes of listing the area, the government’s decision to focus on the Pyu cities seems a logical one.

Although 18-years seems a mere blip in the time span of Bagan’s 1000-year-old history, Mr Makino said that its surrounding environment and international conservation practices have changed significantly. Worryingly, Japan’s permanent delegation to UNESCO said back in 1998 that, “The last two decades have witnessed the rapid deterioration of certain structures. In addition, the earthquake of 1975 caused severe damage to many monuments.”

Much time will be required to devise a revamped site management plan that effectively safeguards Bagan from further wear and tear. This will include structural reinforcements to protect its longevity in the face of other natural disasters.

“The foremost thing is to update the information [from the 1994 submission] – but even before that, we have to gather it all because it was put together 20-years ago,” Mr Makino said.

Naturally, many site officers employed at Bagan when Myanmar signed the World Heritage convention back in 1994 have since retired or moved to other tentative-listed sites in Myanmar. Training to handle specialist equipment is also necessary for existing staff, along with increasing their numbers.

Bagan’s site office needs all varieties of equipment – starting with computers, as Mr Makino observed during his visit.

“Discussions about funding will be held between the government and interested groups and countries,” he said.

Ultimately, whether Bagan joins the prestigious list and gains one of the world’s best-known tourist drawcards depends on whether it possesses what the convention defines as “outstanding universal value.” The second and third factors are integrity and authenticity.

“Disneyland wouldn’t be nominated,” offers a smiling Mr Makino by way of illustration.

These two latter requirements raise the thorny issue of the restorations carried out with zest by the military government during the 1990s. These include a 62-metre viewing tower (the site’s second highest structure), an 18-hole golf course, a highway that cuts through the middle of the site and as National Geographic laments, “[crowning] the remnants of old foundations with standardised cookie-cutter models.” Looting has also been a problem.

When The Myanmar Times asked Mr Makino for his opinion about whether the tower should stay or go, he said, “That’s a very difficult question to answer. It has to be discussed with local and central governments, site managers and the local community. The [World Heritage] committee also has to agree to a decision… For the purposes of the convention, it must be asked whether the tower protects the universal value of the site. Does it disturb the view and the landscape? If they decide that’s the case, then it would go.”

By contrast, restoration works at Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, which took place from 1907 until it became World Heritage listed in 1992, have been roundly praised by the international community. According to UNESCO, the entire works: “had no significant impact on the overall authenticity of the monuments… and do not obtrude upon the overall impression.” The Cambodian government currently works with 14 countries and 28 international teams on 60 different projects to safeguard and develop the world’s largest collection of Hindu temples.

However the ironic result of gaining international recognition through World Heritage and undertaking such meticulous preservation works is the influx of tourists.

As Mr Takikino explains, “Tourism is a double-edged sword. It’s one of the biggest issues facing World Heritage sites.”

He repeatedly stressed the importance of developing a new site plan that addresses the potential pitfalls of tourism head-on.

“For many years UNESCO has been advocating being prepared for this massive flow of tourists. And for many reasons, nobody believed in it,” the BBC quoted Anne Lemaistre, UNESCO’s representative in Cambodia as saying in June this year.

According to the BBC report, 640,000 foreign tourists visited Angkor Wat between January and March this year– a 45 percent increase as compared with the same period last year. To put this figure in perspective, the number of tourists who travel to Cambodia to visit Angkor Wat over the course of three months is almost double the total number of tourists Myanmar received last year.

However French-British tourist Heidi Carneau can already see similarities between Angkor Wat and Bagan.

She said: “Like at Angkor Wat, I preferred the smaller temples [at Bagan] where there was absolutely no-one around and you felt like you were discovering them. The bigger temples are more full on, with tourists and salespeople, and lost some of their charm.”
Nevertheless there is hope that Bagan will benefit from lessons learnt in Cambodia. When Myanmar marked World Tourism Day for the first time on September 27, the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism issued the following statement: “Myanmar is committed to developing tourism in a sustainable and responsible manner. Tourism plays an important role in achieving the millennium development goals.”

Moreover, if Bagan and other sites in Myanmar are listed, much-needed jobs will be created and thousands of locals will gain new skills, such as becoming UNESCO-affiliated guides.

“The convention clearly says that protecting a site does not mean getting rid of the local population. There has to be a benefit for the local community in protecting the site.”

The need to maintain and preserve Myanmar’s most special of places will be continuous, and would thus also preserve traditional crafts and skills between generations.

“We continually inform the Myanmar government that listing is not the end – it’s the beginning of the beginning,” he said.

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