Burma military turns old city to its own use

By Thomas Crampton, International Herald Tribune, April 24, 2005

Theme park rises; reviews are mixed

BAGAN, Burma -- Near a slow bend in the Irrawaddy River here, the brick peaks of the 13th-century Winido temple complex reach majestically skyward. They are among this nation's great monuments to its Buddhist traditions.

But the rooftops, towers and conical stupas, as they are called, are no longer the only structures that dominate the horizon at sunset. Just a few hundred meters away, a newly built 200-foot-tall concrete viewing tower looms over a plain punctuated with several thousand structures.

Those edifices give evidence of what was once an imperial capital and a world center of Theravada Buddhist life.

Ancient kings celebrated their faith and power by building tall and lavish brick monuments, with murals and sculptures.

Now the military dictators who run this country, which they call Myanmar, are adding their own structures, constructed from poured concrete.

The viewing tower is within an area the United Nations has tried for decades to protect with World Heritage status.

The structure has set off an outcry: Conservationists and travel executives condemn the project, but none criticize the government, for fear of retribution.

''We cannot fight against this government in any way because they have total control," said a conservation official in Burma.

In addition to the tower, a poured concrete palace is also being built as an approximate, if entirely imagined, re-creation of the seat of an empire that once ruled a swath of Southeast Asia.

''They are digging up this wealthy archaeological zone to build artificial lakes, golf courses, and now a structure based on their imagined idea of the palace," said a conservationist in Thailand who declined to be named. ''It makes you want to scream."

Described by Marco Polo in the late 13th century as a splendor of gilded towers with ringing bells, the city fell on tough times. Kublai Khan's troops from Mongolia destabilized the empire. They were followed by treasure-hunting Shan hordes who broke up Buddhas in search of jewels. A major earthquake in 1975 sent many of the brick structures tumbling.

''A Disney-style fantasy version of one of the world's great religious and historical sites is being created by that government," said Christian Manhart, a program specialist for UNESCO. ''They use the wrong materials to build wrongly shaped structures on top of magnificent ancient stupas."

Manhart was declared persona non grata by the government because of his protests against the rebuilding program.

The new tower, a cigarette-shaped structure with a spiral staircase around the exterior, is topped off with three viewing floors and an ornate decorative sculpture on the roof. Surrounding the tower is a large hotel resort. Two dozen luxury cottages are under construction. An artificial lake has been filled, though that area of Burma suffers from chronic shortages of clean water.

Once the tower opens to visitors in the next few months, visiting rules are expected to take effect for the entire zone.

''The tower is an absolute scandal that would cause outrage if people knew what was happening to one of the world's great monuments," a retired government official said. ''But of course Bagan's restoration has long been a tool of politicians."

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