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Bagan earthquake: Is there a silver lining for Myanmar?

Bagan earthquake: Is there a silver lining for Myanmar?

There’s rarely a good side to an earthquake. But the quake that shook Myanmar’s ancient city of Bagan on 24 August may have a silver lining, as BBC Myanmar correspondent Jonah Fisher reports.

More than four hundred of Bagan’s buildings were damaged in the earthquake and on the flanks of one of them, Sulamani Pagoda, we watch as a man attacks a lump of rock with a hammer.

Until very recently this lump had sat proudly at the very top, now it’s in the process of being smashed apart. After several percussive blows a grey slab falls away. It’s put into a basket and passed down rickety scaffolding alongside the pagoda.

There’s a human chain of several hundred volunteers waiting to receive it. Like Aye Theingi, a nun dressed all in pink, many of them have travelled long distances to help.

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“I came overnight from Hinthada [500km away] and I haven’t slept yet,” she says with a smile. “I have come from very far away so I will gain a lot of merit.”

Buddhists believe that that they gain merit through doing good deeds, like fixing pagodas, and will be rewarded in this life, or the next.

Further down the line are policemen, monks and workers from Bagan’s many hot air balloon companies. There’s clearly plenty of merit on offer.

Just outside the temple complex the human chain comes to an end and the broken piece of pagoda tower is unceremoniously tipped onto a pile of rubble.

A supervisor wearing a fluorescent jacket takes a quick look, declares it to be concrete and moves on. Like much of Bagan, it has no historical value.

Ancient fragments

Sulamani Pagoda may have been built in the 12th century but the new reinforced concrete tower was added in 1996. There’s no point in keeping its mangled pieces.

“The old structure and the new structure didn’t join well,” Thein Lwin, the deputy director general of Myanmar’s Department of Archaeology, told me with a shake of the head.

“What happened here is that the new part has damaged some of the old as it fell down.”

The focus now is on trying to locate any ancient fragments among the 20th century debris.

Looking further around Bagan, at the tarpaulin and scaffolding, it’s clear that most of the damage is to the newer construction. The older, lower, historically important parts have survived numerous earthquakes in the past and appear to have done so again.

The question is what happens next.

As a living breathing Buddhist site with more than 2000 pagodas built on a seismic fault, Bagan has regularly been damaged, renovated and rebuilt. It’s evolved steadily over the centuries but things stepped up a gear in the 1990s when the country’s generals became involved.

At the time, Myanmar was an international pariah and its military rulers saw Bagan as a prestige project that could deliver both merit, and much craved legitimacy.

Between 1995 and 2005 development accelerated dramatically. Official statistics show that 689 “brick mounds” were renovated. That may sound impressive but “renovation” in this case means a new pagoda being built on top of some old bricks. It was an archaeologist’s worst nightmare. Researchers say nearly 90% of the pagodas have either had major reconstruction or been completely rebuilt.

During the building boom donors were encouraged to sponsor “renovations” as a way to earn merit. Former dictator Than Shwe led the way, adding a new gilded top to a pagoda called Sin Myar Shin (Master of the Elephants).

The development didn’t stop there. There were misguided attempts to attract tourists and hard currency. Hotels, roads and a golf course were built too close to the temples and an ugly viewing tower erected. Critics said the Burmese authorities had done more damage to Bagan than centuries of earthquakes.

“The utilisation of new materials and the indiscriminate use of concrete have contributed to falsifying to a considerable extent the existing monuments,” a scathing paper presented to an international meeting in 2007 stated.

“All too often the initial intentions were based above all on a reconstruction not founded on strictly scientific bases but rather fruit of a fervent imagination.”

The Burmese are understandably defensive about their work. For them the Bagan temples need to function as religious as well as historic sites and the building work forms part of a long tradition.

“We are Buddhist people and we don’t want to see” monuments and Buddhist statues damaged, Thein Lwin tells me. “So we always renovate and rebuild the old monuments. This is a living monument.”

World heritage status?

Concerns about both the building work and the management of Bagan have so far prevented it from being listed as a United Nations World Heritage Site. But there now appears to be a greater spirit of compromise.

No new pagodas are being built, and the days of reinforced concrete appear to be over. The country’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has insisted that rebuilding post-earthquake should not be rushed and a management plan is being developed jointly with UN experts.

“I think there needs to be a certain amount of rectification done over time,” said Kai Wiese, a consultant with Unesco, which manages the UN list.

“But I think we need to look at this as a living heritage site where things do change over time. We need to establish the norms and the acceptable degree of change.”

August’s earthquake has brought renewed cooperation and fresh momentum to the Bagan issue. With help from Unesco, the Burmese authorities say they plan to reapply for World Heritage Site status in 2018.

Few expect it to fail this time.



Source: bbc asia