An unholy row has broken out between two government ministries over allegations of disrespect for Bagan’s ancient pagodas. The Ministry of Hotels and Tourism has hit out at the abrupt ban announced by the Ministry of Culture on the practice of climbing on the sacred buildings to catch a view of the sunset.
The ban was announced on February 22, effective March 1, after a medical company had conducted a show on Pyathagyi Pagoda featuring singing and dancing, which culture officials had denounced for its “ugly impact” on the nation’s culture.
Aligning itself with tourism industry leaders, who have already attacked the ban, the vice minister for tourism, Sai Kyaw Ohn, yesterday told The Myanmar Times that his ministry had not been consulted.
“[This ban] will seriously impact the tourism sector. We accept the need for the long-term conservation of pagodas. But the ban should not have been imposed before an alternative viewing location had been put in place,” he said, adding, “There was no discussion between our two ministries before the release of this announcement.”
The Ministry of Hotels and Tourism is still waiting to receive official notification from the culture ministry, he said.
U Zaw Zaw Tun, director of the Ministry of Culture, was unrepentant, confirming that the announcement would not be withdrawn or changed. “We are doing our duty. We believe our ancient national resources are more valuable and important than tourism income. We have to act to maintain these treasures and ensure they do not disappear,” he said.
Attracting tourists was the job of the tourism industry, not the Ministry of Culture, he added.
However, last night a senior official from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Yangon said it had been informed the Ministry of Culture was reviewing the decision.
“UNESCO has been informed by the Ministry of Culture that they are reviewing their decision and will come up with a mutually acceptable solution soon,” said Sardar Umar Alam, the head of the UNESCO office in Yangon.
The Ministry of Culture could not be reached for confirmation by deadline.
But even Ministry of Culture officials in Bagan appeared to be lukewarm on the directive.
U Thein Lwin, deputy director general of the Department of Archaeology and National Museum, told The Myanmar Times he hoped to “retain a normal situation for visitors”.
“So far we haven’t got any directive from [the ministry in] Nay Pyi Taw,” U Thein Lwin said.
The trouble started after a video and photos were posted to Facebook showing staff from Lucky Time Trading Company celebrating at Bagan’s Pyathagyi Pagoda.
“We didn’t mean this to happen and we very much regret it,” said Daw Htay Htay Mon, the company’s deputy general manager.
She said the company has since submitted a letter of apology to the Department of Archaeology and National Museum, and also published an apology statement in state-owned media.
But the ban remains in place, much to the tourism industry’s chagrin.
Daw Hla Darli Khin, director of 7 Days Travel and Tours, said the practice should have been permitted on a limited number of pagodas for visitors willing to pay an entrance fee.
“We’re terribly upset. How can we sell a Bagan itinerary, and where are people supposed to view the sunset from?” she said.
U Nyi, joint secretary of the Myanmar Tourism Federation, said there were pagodas sturdy enough to be used as viewing platforms, a highly popular practice among visitors. Rather than a flat-out ban, they should be managed closely to ensure their long-term survival.
“Angkor Wat in Cambodia limits the number of people allowed in the temple, and some similar way could be found,” he said. “The association will write to the ministry before March 1 to propose other solutions.”
Allegations of inappropriate development and poor management of the site have continually stalled Bagan’s application, which was first submitted two decades ago.
But in recent years the Ministry of Culture has recently taken several steps to address these concerns. In 2014 it blocked more than 40 hotel projects – most already approved and under construction – after deeming them to be inside a conservation zone. More recently, hot-air balloon flights have also been subject to new restrictions.