via New Mandala, 07 January 2020: Natali Pearson of the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre at the University of Sydney reflects on the tensions between human rights and heritage in Myanmar.
In Myanmar, issues of diversity and inclusion have been ‘at the heart of Burmese politics since the start of modern Burmese politics a hundred years ago’, resulting in ‘an identity crisis that has not yet been resolved’ (Thant Myint-U, The Hidden History of Burma, p. 256). Hence the UNESCO inscription of Bagan, a Buddhist site in a majority Buddhist country, is used by Myanmar’s leaders to demonstrate diversity at the same time as it reaffirms the centrality of a certain type of (religious, racial and cultural) identity within the national narrative. In embracing the opportunities presented by the world heritage inscription, we must move past these prevailing narratives and towards a new imagining of Myanmar as a country that is profoundly multiracial and multicultural, in which ‘race, ethnicity, and identity [are] mutable, evolving and contingent’ (Thant Myint-U, The Hidden History of Burma, p. 188).
The juxtaposition of human rights and heritage in the context of Myanmar can also tell us about the efficacy of isolation versus engagement in global relations. The inscription of Bagan suggests that carrots work better than sticks. From Myanmar’s perspective, the inscription is affirmation that the international community remains willing to engage despite decades of self-imposed isolation, external sanctions and a deteriorating human rights situation. Furthermore, the inscription is indicative of Myanmar’s ability to respond to international expectations. Myanmar began the Bagan nomination process in 1994-5, but it was not progressed by UNESCO due to a lack of appropriate heritage legislation and reservations about Myanmar’s ability to manage the site in accordance with international heritage standards. UNESCO is now sufficiently convinced that such concerns have been addressed, although evidence of earlier mismanagement can be seen to this day in the water-hungry golf course, unerringly straight road laid across archaeologically-rich areas and many tourist hotels that populate the templed landscape, including in the Bagan Archaeological Zone.
The takeaway message here is that Myanmar is willing and able to respond to international pressure in the field of heritage governance and protection. We must continue to hope that positive engagement in relation to human rights remains a possibility.