Burma rebuilding risks Pagan jewel

By Andrew Harding, BBC News, June 4, 2005

Pagan, Myanmar (Burma) -- The sunsets are still spectacular - a golden glow brushing the curves of 2,000 ancient temples and pagodas clustered on the edge of the Irrawaddy River in central Burma.But today some of the world's leading experts have accused Burma's military regime of waging "archaeological blitzkrieg" against the legendary Buddhist treasures of Pagan.

<< Temples at Bagan - archive picture

"They're ruining it," said Richard Engelhardt, regional advisor for the UN's cultural arm, Unesco. "It makes me feel hopeless and helpless and angry and disappointed," he said. I went to survey the damage, posing as a tourist. Burma is one of the world's most repressive dictatorships and foreign journalists are not welcome.

"We are the richest archaeological site in Asia," said my guide proudly as we drove around the site in a horse-drawn carriage.

But almost everywhere I saw signs of the "false" and "misguided" restoration work which Unesco and other experts have so bitterly condemned.

These included:

  • Hundreds of brand new pagodas built with brick and concrete on top of ancient ruins
  • A half-built "palace" being constructed from poured concrete at the heart of the site
  • The widespread use of bathroom tiles, concrete and other unauthentic materials
  • A 200ft (65m) observation tower and hotel complex under construction on the site

"I'm horrified by the tower," said Mr Engelhardt, who is concerned that the isolated regime's hunger for tourist dollars is responsible for the changes.

"The archaeology destroyed during excavation for its foundations can never be recovered. The [Burmese] government is gussying up the site... commodifying it for mass tourism.

"But it's a loss for everyone. It's becoming less and less a real document of the glory of Pagan's past and more an un-understandable book of nonsense," he said.

Local impact

So what do the locals make of the building work?

Well, remember Burma is a military dictatorship. "I cannot tell you," said one souvenir seller with a nervous glance around us, "there are spies everywhere."

"We all hate the tower," said another man. "But if we say the government is not very good, we get in trouble."

Although some locals have found work in the new hotels opening up - built with an eye on luring mass tourism from neighbouring China - many feel they are being pushed out by a regime anxious to monopolise all tourist revenues.

"All the businesses in town are owned by the military," said one man. "They want to stay on their throne forever." For decades Unesco has sought to arrange World Heritage status for Pagan. But disagreements with the Burmese regime have blocked progress and prevented the UN funding programmes to help train local archaeologists to maintain the site.

"The generals have no room for other voices, for constructive criticism," Mr Engelhardt said."There really aren't the people in [Burma] with the skills to do the job right, to rescue the site. And to me that is the most frightening thing."

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