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Interview: ‘It is a chance for the government to show their dedication’

Men working to install bamboo scaffolding around the Sulamani Temple in Bagan. (Photo: Libby Hogan / DVB)

The Bagan Archaelogical Zone is Burma’s largest and most famous heritage site, but it has long been denied UNESCO World Heritage status because of the policies of the country’s former military government, whose restoration efforts fell far short of international standards. Now, following a major earthquake last month that did significant damage to hundreds of Bagan‘s ancient temples, attention is focused on how the current government will approach the problem of preserving the site for posterity. To discuss this, and the process of applying for UNESCO World Heritage Site status, DVB spoke to UNESCO’s Duong Bich Hanh.

Question: From UNESCO’s viewpoint, does the recent earthquake put Bagan’s bid for world heritage status back a step?

Answer: No, not necessarily. We haven’t had a detailed discussion yet with the government, but the assumption is to continue with submitting the nomination in February 2018 and then the case will be discussed during the World Heritage Committee meeting in the summer of 2019. It is a chance for the government to show their dedication and to put in a proper management system for the site. So I don’t think that it will be negatively affected by the earthquake, but we do have to wait for the damage assessment to come out.

We also have to be very careful about how we go forward with the restoration process, so that whatever restoration we are making will not later be harmful to the monuments. As we have seen now in the initial assessment, a lot of damage has been from recent restoration, so if the Myanmar [Burmese] government uses this as a good lesson, this is a great chance to show to the world.

Q: So what were some of the problems with the approach under the last government?

A: The problems will only be clearer after our experts conduct a study on the previous conservation work, but one problem that is quite apparent is the materials were not compatible — for example, originally they might have used lime and mortar and the newly restored parts were made of concrete.

Q: How big is the team in Bagan working with the department of archaeology?

A: We have two or three staff on site on a long-term basis. We have an overall expert on response and rehabilitation strategy who was on site 48 hours after the earthquake and will be spending a lot of time in Bagan during the next few months. We are also mobilising different experts to assist with the detailed assessment, structural engineers who can help with stabilisation of the collapsed monuments, data management experts, conservation experts, etc. These experts will be coming and going over the next few months, so the number will vary. For example, today we have nine staff and experts on the ground. We also have teams in Yangon, Bangkok and [UNESCO’s] headquarters [in Paris] supporting the Bagan response efforts.

Q: What training does UNESCO provide?

A: Training/capacity building is a big part of UNESCO’s work in Bagan. Normally we bring experts in, rather than send people out of the country to train. By bringing experts in, we are able to train a larger number of people. Government staff can also benefit from on-the-job training. We hope that the large number of experts to Bagan during the next few months will also become a great learning opportunity for local staff.

Q: So how much work needs to be done for Bagan to put forward its nomination?

A: A key aspect that needs to be complete for Bagan’s nomination is a proper management system. We had already begun working on that even before the earthquake took place, but we’d also hope to turn this unfortunate event into an opportunity to further strengthen the system.

Q: What does a proper management system look like? Is it about protection and balancing the possible negative effects from tourists visiting the many temples?

A: The longer-term management system involves the coordination of different agencies in setting up a proper framework that involves many aspects. Take, for example, heritage impact assessments. If there is anything that needs to be built around the archaeological area, then it goes through the heritage impact assessment to make sure that it doesn’t negatively impact on heritage. A legal framework will need to be put in place and capacity for relevant institutions needs to be strengthened for heritage protection.

In terms of tourism, it’ll need to deal with the hotel issues, as we can already see that there are some hotels in the monument zone — that’s a story of the past — but we need to come up with a decision on how to deal with permission and how to deal with existing hotels.

Under the overall management framework there might be a need for specific tourism management, a disaster-risk management plan, an economic development plan for the local communities, etc. So it’s not all about tourism, but definitely, making sure that tourism development in Bagan takes place in a sustainable way is one of the most important factors.

Q: What about tourists climbing on top of pagodas? Will that be allowed for much longer?

A: This issue has been brought up and I think there is still no solution that has been agreed upon by all parties involved. Some development agencies — for example, JICA — are suggesting building a mound that is higher and for tourists to go there to look out. We are discussing whether, if people can go in, then maybe it can be in restricted numbers.

Bagan is also a religious site, so in addition to tourism, we also have lots of pilgrimages and pilgrims stay for a long period of time in the temples, so that discussion also needs to take place. On the one hand, we need to respect local communities’ traditions and customs — what we often refer to as their intangible cultural heritage — but we also need to balance that with the preservation of the monuments.

At the moment the focus is on the earthquake response, but hopefully, once we get through this and have agreed on the approaches for restoration, then we can go back to thinking actively about these management issues.