`Blitzkrieg' rehab imperils Myanmar's ancient temples

By Richard C. Paddock, Los Angeles Times, September 10, 2006

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.

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 pro-democracy activists and imprisoned thousands more.

The government has been almost as ruthless with its monuments.

Land of Golden Pagodas

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 encompassing about 16 square miles.

By some estimates, there were 13,000 temples 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.

Many of the temples were damaged by a major earthquake in 1975. The military government of 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 United Nations-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 its 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 its small wooden house and move it.

Untrained workers began covering old walls with plaster, obliterating the original contour of the brick. Statues were removed and replaced with no attempt to make accurate copies.

The damage has been greatest to the medium-sized temples, many of which were neglected after the earthquake and then damaged by subsequent restoration work, said French architect Pierre Pichard, one of the foremost experts on Bagan.

The regime also began a building program that is changing Bagan's skyline.

On the eastern edge of the cultural heritage zone, the government built a 154-foot observation tower that resembles a grain silo and sits alongside a resort complex and golf course.

For $10--two weeks' salary for a teacher here--visitors can take an elevator to the top, have a drink and watch the sun set over the temples.

Out of place

In Old Bagan, workers have built a massive archeological museum and have nearly finished a palace designed in 19th Century Mandalay style--not 12th Century Bagan style. Both grandiose structures seem out of place on the plain of temples.

Pichard and other Western experts say the rebuilding program has caused irreparable harm to Bagan. American archeologist Donald Stadtner says the damage caused by the 1975 quake was "benign" compared with the reconstruction of the last 15 years.

"Up to 1990, Pagan was one of the best preserved sites and cultural landscapes in Asia, with a perfect blend of the rural life where peasants, villages and well-cultivated fields surrounded the monuments without any harm," Pichard said.

"Now all actions result in disfiguring the site and endangering the ancient buildings. Sorry for the cliche, but Pagan is becoming a Disneyland, and a very bad one."