Myanmar's Heritage Conundrum

The LA Times posts this story about how the Myanmar government has renovated – rather arbitrarily and inaccurately – it’s ancient monuments in a bid to attract tourists.

07 Aug 2007 (Los Angeles Times) – The LA Times posts this story about how the Myanmar government has renovated – rather arbitrarily and inaccurately – it’s ancient monuments in a bid to attract tourists.

All that glitters is not gold in Myanmar’s political landscape
Amid Bagan’s historic gilded steeples stand newer imposters thrown up in a government effort to fuel tourism despite international sanctions.

UNESCO and archaeological experts have denounced the government’s rebuilding of ancient sites, and the construction of a mammoth 197-foot viewing tower that has been open for two years and an upscale resort in the middle of Bagan’s antiquities.

Not that Myanmar’s State Peace and Development Council — the latest incarnation of a junta that has sealed the nation off from the rest of the world for the last 44 years — is going to lose sleep over some old bricks. Although a world pariah for its gulag of political prisoners, bloody campaigns against ethnic minorities, suppression of pro-democracy demonstrators in 1988, and for keeping Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, elected president of the nation, under house arrest on and off since 1989, the regime isn’t deterred by public censure.

Or boycotts. International trade sanctions and a tourist boycott designed to restore democracy have kept Western products and many travelers out of Myanmar. But trade is flourishing with China and non-boycotting Asian nations, making the sanctions moot. Some supporters of Suu Kyi, who endorses the boycott, charge that anyone who travels to Myanmar funds the generals. Others argue that tourism helps job-starved Burmese — taxi drivers, food stall operators, postcard hawkers and artisans. As one guide told me, “If sanctions were 100% honored, I would say stay home, but since they’re not, tell your friends to come. We need jobs.”

I considered the arguments and decided to go last year, steering clear of government hotels and viewing towers. Boycotts almost always hurt the little guy and seal off societies from outside eyes.

The profusion of temples and maroon-robed monks adds to the exotica of a land whose government-enforced isolation has made it a time warp of the Asia of decades ago. Bullocks pass for farm machinery. And the main transit system for ferrying goods is human — on heads or bikes piled to gravity-defying heights.

But the government has moved fast to bring Bagan up to modern tourism standards. Too fast for UNESCO archaeological experts, who pulled out of Myanmar after the regime’s methods put paintings inside Bagan’s temples at risk. The government later abandoned the paintings. Without proper preservation, thousands of works of art are threatened, one Burmese expert who asked not to be identified told me. I saw priceless murals of life in the 12th century under attack by termites, which target the sugar used in the ancient plaster.

But the government has charged ahead with work on temple facades. It has grafted steeples onto topless monuments and rebuilt fallen structures without archaeological oversight.

Just behind Somingyi, I spotted a new edifice going up. The souvenir salesman and I wandered over to watch a crew rebuild a small cube temple leveled by an earthquake. The construction techniques look like what might have been used for the original temples here — bamboo ladder and scaffold, a pot of lime for mortar and bricks a-flying. The hurler was a skinny young woman in a straw hat who in another land might have a future on the softball mound. In the wilting sun, she flung brick after brick to a worker 12 feet up.

I asked who was funding the job and was told, a private benefactor. Donors to Buddhist sites can win spiritual merit, a motivation that spurs contributions.

Read the full story behind Myanmar’s Bagan.

Books about the archaeology of Myanmar are relatively few and hard to find. Here are some of the available:
Ancient Pagan by D. Stadtner
Bagan by B. Broman

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Author: Noel Tan

Dr Noel Hidalgo Tan is the Senior Specialist in Archaeology at SEAMEO-SPAFA, the Southeast Asian Regional Centre for Archaelogy and Fine Arts.

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