The Myanmar Times
The Myanmar Times

Bagan’s long, bumpy road to World Heritage listing

Myanmar's ancient city of Bagan has one of the largest concentrations of temples and pagodas in the world, many of them more than 1000 years old, but despite its archaeological significance, its attempt to get World Heritage status has been fraught with obstacles.

Tourists visiting Bagan archaeological site. Photo - StaffTourists visiting Bagan archaeological site. Photo - Staff

Although Bagan was nominated to be listed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) as a World Heritage in 1996, the first attempt was not successful due to mismanagement and the fact that Bagan was not recognised as an ancient cultural zone at that time.

Daw Ohn Mar Myo, UNESCO’s national project officer in Myanmar, said there was some misunderstanding of that attempt.

Some people were under the impression that the emergence of new buildings and hotels in the Bagan archaeological zone inhibited recognition as a World Heritage site. Others, including U Aung Kyaing, a former officer from the Department of Archaeology, National Museum and Library, were of the opinion that the bid was rejected due to political situation at that time.

“Actually UNESCO asked for more requirements such as a management plan, how the site will be conserved and better, specific laws. That’s why UNESCO said that a complete draft proposal be prepared for re-submission,” Daw Ohn Mar Myo told The Myanmar Times.

U Aung Aung Kyaw, director of the Department of Archaeology, National Museum and Library, said the proposal has to include drawing of the boundary for the Bagan archaeological zone.

Pondaung primate site. Photo - StaffPondaung primate site. Photo - Staff

“We are aiming to submit the proposal by September. Currently Mandalay Region government and the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture cannot decide on the boundary,” he said.

The proposal also requires a master plan for the management of residential areas, farm lands, communication, transportation, ancient culture as well as tourism in the archaeological zone.

Experts from UNESCO have suggested that Tant Kyi Taung hill be included in the buffer zone.

“We suggested Tant Kyi Taung hill should be added to buffer zone. One day there could be trouble for Bagan due to many reasons, if they didn’t put in a buffer zone. The idea is to ensure protection of the archaeological zone,” said Daw Ohn Mar Myo.

Bagan currently has an ancient monument zone, archaeological zone and protective zone that are under the purview of the Department of Archaeology, National Museum and Library.

Workers at Pyu archaeological site. Photo - StaffWorkers at Pyu archaeological site. Photo - Staff

In 1990, local residents were relocated to the new Bagan city to facilitate the government’s bid for World Heritage status.

The residents expressed worries that they may be relocated when the archaeological zone boundary is drawn, and have asked for an urban zone to be added.

The bid for World Heritage status should not affect on local people’s businesses, said U Ko Ko Maung who had to relocate from Old Bagan to New Bagan in 1990.

“Actually new Bagan is an urban zone but the culture minister said that we have no right to sell our land. Isn’t the master plan going to accommodate the new generation? The draft for World Heritage status will not include local people’s businesses?” he asked.

State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has suggested that the Bagan ancient zone boundary should include data that can be accepted by the local people.

One of Bago’s historical sites. Photo - StaffOne of Bago’s historical sites. Photo - Staff

“When they set up an ancient archaeological zone it should be accepted by local people and in line with the ancient heritage conservation draft law as well. They also have to ensure renovation work on pagodas does not alter the ancient architecture,” Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said during a visit to Bagan on January 24.

The Bagan archaeological zone plan has to reflect a balance of the elements of tourism, ancient heritage conservation and community development. And it needs to be transparent; businesses, social affairs and other management should be systematically implemented, said  Daw Ohn Mar Myo.

“UNESCO knows that villages and cities had always existed in Bagan. We never suggested demolishing or removing any but we gave advice on the need for a new town plan for the development of increasing population. If not, it will affect our heritage,” she said.

The Bagan master plan is mainly intended for the long-term sustainability of local community development, heritage conservation as well as tourism development.

An evening at Han Lin archaeological location. Photos: StaffAn evening at Han Lin archaeological location. Photos: Staff

Following State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s suggestion of long-term conservation of pagodas, the Department of Archaeology, National Museum and Library plans to limit the sunrise and sunset viewing over pagodas starting from the next tour season.

There are still questions over the hotels in the archaeological zone in Bagan, and relevant departments and the government have yet to come up with solutions. Although UNESCO has suggested that hoteliers should move out of archaeological zone after 10 or 15 years, the respective government and ministries have yet to implement the suggestion.

If the proposal is submitted to UNESCO by September, UNESCO will carry out a site inspection of Bagan throughout 2018. If more requirements are needed, they have to be addressed  before UNESCO decides whether Bagan qualifies for World Heritage status at its meeting in 2019.

“We will try to submit it by September. We will implement the nomination dossier and management plan as much as we can after finishing the boundary, so that the proposal can be submitted on time,” said U Thein Lwin, deputy director general of the Department of Archaeology, National Museum and Library.