Illegal hotels under spotlight as Bagan seeks heritage status

A government-backed campaign to have Bagan included on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites has moved into a sensitive area following a decision by the Ministry of Culture to take action against hotels built illegally within the ancient city and temple complex.

But it remains to be seen exactly what the government plans to do with hotels built by well-connected businesspeople under the former military junta within the walls of Old Bagan, as well as an 18-hole golf course and a soaring concrete viewing tower inside the wider archaeological zone.

An official from the Mandalay Region government, who asked not to be named, told The Myanmar Times that the Ministry of Culture would take legal action against some hotels.

“The law for ancient culture protection and preservation is already submitted by the Ministry of Culture. Some hotels in Old Bagan are within the ancient heritage zone and will face action according to the law,” he said.

A team of experts from the Heritage Impact Assessment, the International Council of Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) and the Myanmar Archaeologist Association has started inspecting the hotels, said U Thein Lwin, deputy director general of the Department of Archaeology, National Museum and Library.

“We have inspected about 15 hotels and found some are impacting the ancient heritage, and we need to continue to inspect other buildings. We will report the result to the ministry and then they will decide how to take action after the inspection is finished,” U Thein Lwin said.

Action must be taken against the hotels if they are in breach of article 17 of the law on regional culture protection and preservation, he added.

The inspections are part of a broader plan to include Bagan on the World Heritage List, which officials last year said they hoped to achieve by 2017. “We are drawing up the management plan together with experts from UNESCO. If we can follow their advice then Bagan would be added to the World Heritage List,” U Thein Lwin said.

The National Tourism Central Committee, led by Vice President U Nyan Tun, a former navy commander, is involved in surveying the hotels in the Bagan zone, according to U Nyan Win, chair of the Myanmar Tourism Federation.

The committee, which includes ministers and business associations, has held talks with hotel owners to have their structures demolished if ancient buildings lie within their hotel compounds, U Nyan Win said. Parts of two hotels were demolished, he said.

Last October officials from the Ministry of Culture and UNESCO met international experts in Bagan to discuss how the ancient city, which rose to prominence between the ninth and 13th centuries, could be protected from poorly planned development and a sharp rise in tourists.

An improved inventory of pagodas and temples at the site, as well as stricter enforcement of heritage laws, were identified as important steps to be undertaken before the site can be nominated, ministry officials said.

In the early 1990s the then-military regime forcibly moved hundreds of residents from a village that had grown inside the city walls of Old Bagan to a barren area a few kilometres away. New Bagan has since grown into a small town of hotels and guesthouses for ever-increasing numbers of tourists expected to reach 5 million this year.

A 1998 law banned development inside cultural heritage sites but some hotels were built before the law was enacted. Others were allowed later in contravention of the law, some by businesses with links to the regime. The cavernous Bagan Museum towering over the old city was also built at that time.

Given the sensitivity of these business ties, officials are reluctant to name which hotels might be slated for demolition.

U Sai Kyaw Ohn, deputy minister for tourism, said that if buildings of any kind had an impact on Bagan’s ancient structures, they should be moved under the law and all future such projects should be banned.
Licences to build hotels must have the permission of the regional government and the Department of Archaeology, National Museum and Library, he said.

Officials are preparing to take legal action against nine more buildings in Bagan and the nearby town of Nyaung Oo, according to U Nyein Lwin, deputy director of the Bagan branch of the department.

“We are ready to prosecute. We are going to sue them after we get the permission. We have already taken legal action against one building. We are going to deal with nine more buildings to date,” he said. Some buildings had permits for two storeys but constructed three or four, while others had gone beyond the permissible space, he said.

He said about 40 sites were building illegally in the Bagan and Nyaung Oo areas. Some had continued building despite repeated warning letters.

The Ministry of Culture restricted new buildings to two storeys in August 2014. Three storeys had been set as the limit in May 2013.

U San Win, a retired director general at the Ministry of Culture who helped draft the 1998 law on the Protection and Preservation of Cultural Heritage Regions, said it was difficult to enforce the law when society lacked awareness of the need to protect the country’s heritage.
“Sometimes some cases are above the law. It was very complicated to take action with the law when some didn’t respect it,” he told The Myanmar Times.

For example, he said, development projects inside cultural and protected zones should have those buildings removed or demolished as mandated by the judiciary.

“But what if they didn’t? We needed to consider such kinds of cases,” he said, explaining that the 1998 law was amended to include other forms of punishment, including fines.
However, the fine for illegal buildings was set at K10,000 (now about US$9) a day – a paltry amount for a large enterprise.

Last month the Ministry of Culture released the text of two bills – the Protection and Preservation of Ancient Buildings Law, and the Protection and Preservation of Ancient Antiquities Law. They are intended to beef up the protection of Myanmar’s cultural heritage and include tougher punishments, including jail terms of three to seven years for anyone found to have damaged, removed or destroyed heritage buildings.
The penalties will help the ministry enforce regulations banning development inside cultural zones, particularly at Bagan.

Source: Myanmar Times

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