From Ruins to Ruined

By Richard C. Paddock, Los Angeles Times, September 7, 2006

Myanmar's regime is obliterating a cultural treasure as it `rebuilds' ancient temples to bring in tourists. Experts are aghast -- and uninvited.

BAGAN, Myanmar -- The bricklayers are paid $1.35 a day to rebuild the ancient ruin: a small, 13th century temple reduced by time to little more than its foundation.

<< The ancient Bagan complex in under threat

But they have no training in repairing aged monuments, and their work has nothing to do with actually restoring one of the world's most important Buddhist sites. Instead, using modern red bricks and mortar, they are building a new temple on top of the old.

They work from a single page of drawings supplied by the government. Three simple sketches provide the design for a generic brick structure and a fanciful archway. No one knows, or seems to care, what the original temple looked like. Nearby are two piles of 700-year-old bricks that were pulled from the ruin. The bricklayers use them to fill holes in the temple.

Known as Monument No. 751, the structure is one of hundreds of new temples that have popped up all over the ancient city of Bagan, which ranks with Cambodia's Angkor temple complex as one of Asia's most remarkable religious sites. Once the scene of an international rescue effort, Bagan is now in danger of becoming a temple theme park.

The late Myanmar historian Than Tun called the restoration "blitzkrieg archeology."

"They are carrying out reconstruction based on complete fantasy," said an American archeologist who asked not to be identified for fear of being banned from the country. "It completely obliterates any historical record of what was there."

Myanmar, also known as Burma, is ruled by a military government that has been cut off from the West for more than a decade because of its brutality toward its people. Since 1988, the generals who run the country have killed thousands of democracy activists and imprisoned thousands more. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has been detained for nearly 11 of the last 17 years.

The government has been almost as ruthless with its monuments.

Myanmar is advertised to tourists as the Land of Golden Pagodas. Bagan's largest temples rival the cathedrals of Europe in size and age, but rather than being scattered across a continent, they are concentrated in an area about the size of Santa Monica.

By some estimates, there were as many as 13,000 temples here during Bagan's peak in the 13th century. Today, the Bagan cultural heritage zone has more than 2,200 temples, along with 2,000 unidentifiable mounds and ruins.

Despite the new construction, Bagan remains awe-inspiring. Climb up on one of the larger monuments and the temples seem to stretch across the dusty plain as far as the eye can see. Some of the larger monuments soar as high as 20 stories; many are decorated with tiers of stone spires and ornate carvings. Some of the largest temples house giant statues of Buddha covered in gold leaf, and some still have original frescoes depicting the life of Buddha.

Scattered among the large monuments are temples as small as a one-room hut, often with a statue of Buddha inside, and squat, circular pagodas with a conical stupa on top and no entryway.

Many of the temples were damaged by a major earthquake in 1975. The military government at the time accepted international assistance, and experts from around the world spent years restoring some of the most important temples. Major temples restored after the quake remain in good condition.

But after a new clique of generals came to power in 1988, interest in upholding international standards for historic preservation vanished. The regime rejected offers of continued foreign assistance and eventually dropped its plan to seek Bagan's designation as a World Heritage site, leaving one of the world's premier archeological sites without U.N.-protected status.

The government decided instead that turning Bagan, also known as Pagan, into a tourist destination could bring much-needed foreign cash. The generals set about making the archeological zone more appealing to visitors, particularly tourists from neighboring countries such as China and Thailand that are not so critical of the military government. Few Western visitors come to Bagan because of calls by the opposition for a tourist boycott.

One of the regime's first steps was to uproot all 3,000 residents who lived within Old Bagan's historic walls and move them to New Bagan a few miles south.

"We were very angry," said one man who was 15 when his family had to pick up and move its small wooden house. "The older people were very sad. We had been there many generations."

Where the homes used to be, the government began building hotels and restaurants. Much of the work was done with forced labor, a form of exploitation for which the regime is notorious.

As in every aspect of society here, decisions on historic preservation are made by generals with no special expertise or training. Government archeologists say privately they have no choice but to go along.

"If we disagree," one said, "they will send us to prison."