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The ancient city of Bagan hosts the largest concentration of Buddhist temples, stupas and pagodas in the world, many of which are more than a thousand years old; yet despite its rich archaeological and historical significance, Bagan’s attempts to gain World Heritage Status have long been fraught with obstacles.
The main objection by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is the clutter of hotels, resorts, shops and other buildings within the site. The UN has also consistently challenged the Burmese authorities for shoddy renovation work on the temples.
Nonetheless, the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture is taking steps to convince UNESCO that it has a long-term plan for Bagan that will fall in line with the world body’s strict heritage standards. The ministry aims to table that blueprint in two months’ time.
At the forefront of Burma’s proposal will be a pledge to relocate hotels and buildings that interfere with the ancient ruins. The first stage of the plan, which included mapping the site and compiling data on each monument, was submitted to UNESCO in September.
According to Bagan’s Department of Archaeology, National Museum and Library, the second stage of the proposal will involve a structured management plan, which will only be submitted after consultation with local residents and hoteliers.
At least six resorts to be relocated
The Department of Archaeology, National Museum and Library says it believes that to file a successful proposal at least six major hotels or landmarks would have to be relocated to the hotel zone in “New Bagan” or other areas outside the archaeological site.
Speaking to DVB this week, Aung Aung Kyaw, the director of the Department, said, “They [the six specific hotels] must relocate if they can afford to. We will be discussing this matter further with the hotel owners.”
What becomes of the six hotels if the owners say they do not have the finances to relocate is as yet unclear.
Five of the six properties have been named as: the Bagan Thiripyitsaya Sanctuary Resort; the Hotel @Tharabar Gate; the Bagan Hotel (River View); the Bagan Thande Hotel; and Nan Myint viewing tower (owned by the Aureum Palace Hotel). Each has an ancient stupa or temple in its grounds. The sixth property, owned by the Eden Group, is currently under construction.
But while the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture has approved the relocation of the hotels, it originally gave the owners 10 or 15 years to make arrangements, according to Zaw Weik, the chairman of the Myanmar Hoteliers Association (Bagan Zone).
In many ways, the current dilemma was created back in the 1990s when the then ruling military junta mismanaged the entire project, allowing the construction of a two-lane road and even a golf course among the archaeological ruins. UNESCO roundly dismissed Burma’s 1996 application for World Heritage Status.
However, in recent years, most notably under the administration of former President Thein Sein, Burma has embarked on a major drive to encourage tourism.
Tens of thousands of foreign tourists now visit Bagan every year, so much so that authorities have had to enact a law forbidding visitors from climbing certain temples for fear of causing irreversible damage.
In 2013, permits were granted to build 42 new hotels or resorts in Bagan, but authorities then revoked them the following year. Then this year, under the Aung San Suu Kyi-led government, permits were reissued for 25 of those developments.
“The 17 hotels which were denied were situated within the archaeological zone or heritage zone,” said Aung Aung Kyaw of the Department of Archaeology, National Museum and Library, adding that discussions were ongoing as to granting those parties permits to build on sites outside the heritage zones.
He said the sites vacated by the hotels would thereafter be reserved as public spaces.
What is UNESCO’s response likely to be?
UNESCO’s programme officer Ohnmar Myo told DVB this week that they have been in contact with Burma’s Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture regarding the relocation of the hotels. She also confirmed that UNESCO had been consulted about the possibility of allowing hotel owners 10-15 years to find alternative sites.
She said that UNESCO had not issued a response and that no decision had yet been made.
“If the government mismanages the plans again, Bagan will not become a World Heritage City,” she simply said.
The second stage of Burma’s proposal is due to be submitted to UNESCO in January. After that, it will be down to UNESCO to rule on whether to grant World Heritage Status to Bagan starting in 2019.