September 1, 2023

Heritage held hostage: Conflict and cronyism threaten World Heritage Sites

Frontier Myanmar

Myanmar conservationists urge UNESCO to take a stand to protect the Pyu Ancient Cities from conflict and looting, and Bagan’s temples and pagodas from unchecked development.


Conflict, looting and sheer mismanagement are eroding Myanmar’s illustrious legacy, prompting archaeologists and cultural experts in the anti-junta resistance to appeal to the United Nations to break its silence and list the country’s World Heritage Sites as endangered.

The scattered temples and pagodas of the former imperial capital of Bagan and the three Pyu Ancient Cities are particularly at risk, located close to conflict zones or vulnerable to destructive commercial and infrastructure development.

The people of Hanlin, within Sagaing Region’s Wetlet Township, say they have felt like prisoners since the army set up a base in the town, which contains the more than 1,000-year-old remains of a Pyu city. Since arriving late last year, the soldiers have restricted the area to outsiders and demanded bribes of up to K400,000 from residents needing to travel elsewhere.

Hanlin resident Ko Swe Lin* claimed the military had garrisoned itself in a UN-listed World Heritage Site in the belief that this status would deter attacks by resistance groups, who occupy large parts of the surrounding countryside.

However, the priceless relics of the Pyu, Myanmar’s earliest known civilisation, have not prevented attacks by either side. Before occupying Hanlin, the military reportedly burned down houses and fired heavy weapons into the area on October 23 last year. In response, resistance groups bombed soldiers as they were leaving Hanlin the following day to patrol nearby villages.

The parallel National Unity Government’s Interim Board for heritage Administration declared in February that heritage zones were off-limits to armed groups, including resistance forces, and that it would prosecute anyone for any damage under existing conservation legislation as well as the counter-terrorism law. This prohibition covered Hanlin as well as historic sights belonging to ethnic minorities.

But seemingly ignoring this declaration, People’s Defence Force fighters under NUG command attacked the troops occupying Hanlin with drone-mounted bombs and artillery in July.

Spokesperson of the NUG’s heritage board Ko Htet Naing Oo told Frontier it would investigate any such attacks by resistance groups, although it has yet to make any determinations public.

Adding to the threat from active conflict, Swe Lin claimed “the soldiers are also looting cultural relics in the zone and selling them to brokers”.

In addition to robbing tombs, occupying forces are seizing cows, pigs and chickens from local farmsteads to feed themselves. Wealthier residents cultivating the region’s prized aromatic Shwebo rice also have to bribe soldiers to take their produce to market, Swe Lin said.

Another resident, Ma Aye Thazin*, confirmed this rampant looting, saying that it was partly driven by desperation as PDFs sabotage the soldiers’ supply lines.

“The military is not providing food for its soldiers who are stationed in that area because they know where the PDFs are,” she said, referring to resistance groups’ presence in the surrounding countryside.

“Outsiders think that the people who live in Hanlin must be pro-military. That’s true to an extent, but I’m one of the few people still here who is against the military,” Swe Lin said, explaining that with four people in his family they could not afford the money to leave.

‘UNESCO needs to speak out now’

The ancient Pyu civilisation, which flourished from 200 BCE for over 1,000 years, can be traced in the ruins of the three walled and moated cities of Hanlin in Sagaing, Beikthano in Magway and Sri Ksetra in Bago Region. They’re all located in the Dry Zone of the vast Ayeyarwady River basin in central Myanmar, which has emerged as a major centre of resistance to the junta since the February 2021 coup.

The archaeological sites, only partly excavated, have yielded palace citadels, burial grounds, monumental Buddhist stupas, as well as sites for artisanal manufacturing and remains of ancient water management systems.

Daw Kyi Pyar*, who worked for the Department of Archaeology and National Museum before the coup, said she never imagined that Hanlin would be transformed from a heritage to a war zone.

“As soon as I learned about what was happening to Hanlin, I was overwhelmed by sadness,” said a tearful Kyi Pyar, who joined the mass strike of civil servants called the Civil Disobedience Movement when the military seized power. “They are destroying something that was supposed to be preserved.”

In 2014, she was part of the government team that successfully lobbied for the Pyu ancient cities to be added to the World Heritage List kept by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

Since the military’s occupation of Hanlin, she and other Myanmar archaeologists have been calling on UNESCO to add the site to the organisation’s List of World Heritage in Danger. They say this would put the military’s actions under the international spotlight and, in the words of UNESCO, “encourage corrective action”.

Important sites on the list include the ancient Buddhist relics in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Valley, the historic centre of Odessa in Ukraine and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Reasons for being inscribed include conflict, pollution, urbanisation and uninhibited tourist development.

NUG heritage board spokesperson Htet Naing Oo said that including Hanlin and other Pyu ancient cities would highlight the “urgency of preserving and protecting” these places. “The military may also face more pressure,” he said.

However, since the coup, the Myanmar military has killed thousands of civilians with impunity – including by gunning down peaceful protesters, bombing villages with fighter jets and mass executions. International outcry has done little to restrain the regime.

Nonetheless, a former general secretary of the Myanmar Archaeology Association, Ko Thu Ya Aung, said the military’s occupation of heritage sites is a violation of the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. The treaty, signed by Myanmar, also applies to internal conflicts, so UNESCO has no reason to remain silent, he said.

“UNESCO needs to speak out now, as it has in Ukraine. UNESCO must give a strong response to the Hanlin situation. The Pyu ancient cities should be designated as World Heritage in Danger,” he said.

But Daw Aye*, an expert in archaeology who has worked on international conservation programmes in Myanmar, told Frontier that UNESCO typically doesn’t speak out forcefully during internal conflicts such as Myanmar’s.

“These sites are our heritage, and only we can protect them. Who else will safeguard our cultural heritage if we don’t?” she asked.

But even if UNESCO fails to issue a warning, any destruction to Hanlin could result in all three ancient Pyu cities being removed from the World Heritage list, despite their distance from each other, because they were all grouped as a single nomination.

UNESCO’s office in Bangkok did not respond to requests for comment by Frontier.

U Arkar Kyaw, a director in the junta’s Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture, said that he isn’t fully aware of what’s happening in Hanlin but doesn’t think UNESCO would sound the alarm.

“We’re still gathering information from Hanlin but the situation does not warrant it to be designated as Heritage in Danger,” he said.

Tourists visit Ananda temple in Bagan on January 18, 2020. (AFP)

Building on Bagan

While Hanlin is beset by conflict and looters, the iconic landscape of Bagan, in Mandalay Region’s Nyaung-U Township, is under threat more from greedy business interests and the continued failure of authorities to enforce conservation rules.

Nyaung-U residents say that major conglomerate Eden Group is still constructing a luxury hotel among the temples of Old Bagan. The site is within the Ancient Monuments Zone, where development is prohibited under a management plan prepared by Myanmar as part of its application for Bagan to join the World Heritage List. UNESCO added Bagan to the list in 2019, 25 years after it was first nominated, but failure to implement the management plan could see it removed.

Before the coup, Eden chairman U Chit Khine told reporters that United States company Hilton would operate the hotel. The status of this partnership is unclear, and Hilton did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

This hotel is far from the only harmful development that predates the coup. Bagan-born tycoon U Myo Min Oo, a long-time associate of top military crony U Tay Za, built the Royal House Hotel within the protected “buffer zone”. In the management plan submitted to UNESCO, Myanmar promised to clear this zone of hotels by 2028, making any investment in the area untenable. Sources told Frontier for a 2019 story that Myo Min Oo had also restricted access to two ancient stupas, allowing only hotel guests to visit them.

These encroachments were allegedly enabled by Myo Min Oo’s cosy relationships with township and regional officials, including from the National League for Democracy. Frontier could not confirm the status of the Royal House Hotel or his other businesses in Bagan, which include at least three other hotels, a hot air balloon company and the Nan Myint viewing tower.

Daw Aye told Frontier that while those projects had been approved by the NLD government, the junta had the power to withdraw the permits if it cared about Bagan’s heritage.

“The NLD government ignored our repeated requests to stop granting permits. In fact, most of the cases of poor management in Bagan occurred under the past NLD administration. This is something I don’t like to say, but it’s the truth,” she said.

Bagan is Myanmar’s premier tourist attraction, but its economy has been battered by the collapse in international visitors due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the coup. Last year, the regime’s Ministry of Hotels and Tourism counted just 12,105 foreign tourists, down from 1 million in 2019.

With little business to be had, locals have been surprised to see many new hotels, handicraft shops and restaurants spring up.

“I don’t understand why hotel owners are expanding, given the current state of affairs in our country,” said Ko Win Aung*, a former local tour guide. “Still, it’s safe enough to visit Bagan. There’s no violence here. But to enter Bagan, you have to pass through a military checkpoint, and the soldiers there are always drunk.”

Foreign visitors these days are mostly Chinese and Thai, he added, although their limited numbers mean hotels and restaurants mostly rely on domestic travellers.

Meanwhile, projects to preserve and restore Bagan’s ancient temples have been hampered by the withdrawal of expert teams from the US, Japan, South Korea and France.

Assistance from India and China has continued since the coup. However, Thu Ya Aung, formerly of the Myanmar Archaeology Association, said their conservation work was “not as good as Western countries” and that the loss of the other expert teams was “devastating for Bagan”. He said he fears a repeat of the amateur restoration work, using red bricks and cement, that defaced Bagan’s temples under the rule of Myanmar’s previous military dictator, Senior General Than Shwe, who stepped down in 2011.

Arkar Kyaw of the religious affairs and culture ministry confirmed that Western countries, Japan and South Korea had pulled out of restoration projects but said the COVID pandemic in 2020 had been the cause. “I don’t think it’s related to the political situation,” he said.

“The government trusts that China and India’s methods for renovating temples will at least match global norms,” he added.

Besides a flight of foreign expertise, a Beijing-backed railway project connecting the Rakhine State coast with China’s Yunnan Province might also pose a risk to the World Heritage Site. Frontier reported in February that Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, as chair of the junta’s State Administration Council, had approved a change in the proposed route so that it passes through Bagan, in order to promote tourism and develop parts of central Myanmar.

A senior Ministry of Transport and Communications official, who asked to remain anonymous for safety reasons, told Frontier that the railway route would also include the mediaeval capital of Inwa near Mandalay, although he downplayed the danger to both sites.

“I was told that it had already been approved by the chairman of the SAC, and I believe that China will figure out the most effective way to reduce the high risk to the heritage sites. Otherwise, the SAC chairman would not have given approval,” the senior official said.

But Daw Aye said she had learned that the rail route would pass through Bagan’s protected zones, meaning it could cause serious damage to the heritage site and violate its management plan. Frontier could not independently verify this.

“The previous government had agreed with UNESCO not to do any projects in those zones, so the railway project is a worry,” Daw Aye said.

* indicates the use of a pseudonym for security reasons

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