Talk of heritage status application brings fresh fears for Bagan locals
BAGAN residents who were previously forced from their homes to allow the development of a heritage site are living in fear of a fresh attempt to evict them.
In 1990, more than 4000 residents were thrown out of old Bagan city, given just a week to vacate. That was during the government’s first stab at having the ancient site declared a World Heritage Zone.
With the regional authorities once again eyeing the UNESCO listing, and setting an ambitious target for an October 2017 application, residents are nervous.
The Department of Archaeology, National Museum and Library and the Association of Myanmar Architects have been working on a master plan for Bagan since last year, including zoning for the height and exterior of buildings and land-use regulations.
These regulations have already made it impossible for residents to build on their own plots without prior approval from the Department of Archaeology. Now they are worried any further tightening of the restrictions could make it impossible for them to sell their homes. Many still mourn the ancestral lands they say they were forced to vacate a generation ago.
“We’d lived in Old Bagan since our grandparents’ day,” said U Ye Myint, 70, a tourist guide.
He said about 4000 people had been given a week’s notice to move, in the height of summer, to a site exposed to the heat and dust, without roads, water or electricity during the 1990 eviction. “People didn’t even know where they were supposed to go, because the authorities had failed to mark out the land properly,” he said.
“They threatened to destroy our homes with bulldozers if we didn’t move to where they wanted us to go. I still hoped one day we would be able to go back to our native home, so I only built a small house for my family. I meant to build a bigger one when we were allowed to go back,” he said, adding, “Even now we all would like to return home if we had the chance.”
Bagan resident Daw Maw Maw Aung, 49, said the police had forced homeowners to sign a paper agreeing to leave the ancient pagoda zone.
U Ko Ko Maung, 58, who also now lives in New Bagan, said the government had forced residents to immediately move their belongings to the new site designated for them.
“The new location was just a snake-infested field with no water or electricity. Nobody helped us move. The authorities drove us out like animals,” he said, adding that some elderly residents had died of heart attacks after the move. The property also flooded when the first rains came, he said.
Basic infrastructure such as a highway bus station, hospital and city hall were still missing.
Older residents still missed the traditional religious festivals they used to celebrate in their former homes, he said. “It’s just not the same holding the festivals in New Bagan. People celebrate with tears in their eyes,” he said.
However, commercial interests seem to have prospered, said U Ye Myint. He said the old Bagan high school had been demolished because it was supposedly on the site of the ancient Tharabar Gate. However, a hotel had now been built on the site.
“The Aye Yar Hotel used to be small, but has now extended as far as the bank of the Ayeyarwady River and into the grounds of the Taung Be village cemetery,” he said.
“Who permitted this, and why? We left our homes to make way for a world heritage site, only to be told that where we live now is still within the site zone and we may have to move again,” said U Ko Ko Maung.
More than 42 hotels and guesthouses are in limbo after being banned by the government from taking guests, even though they were granted licences in 2013, on the grounds that they are located within the pagoda zone.
U Aung Aung Kyaw, director of the Bagan archaeology department, said the residents will only be moved if they currently reside within the ancient archaological zone, which incorporates Nyaung-U, New Bagan, Myin Kapar village and Min Nan Thu.
“As for hotels in ancient zone that management committee is still discussion how to decide for that,” he said.
Resident U Ko Ko Maung accused the archaeology officials of under appreciating the local’s contribution to conservation efforts. “The only reason these ancient pagodas and religious buildings still represent our national heritage is because our grandparents conserved them. The archaeology department can’t preserve any buildings without the help of local people,” he said.
“If we had to leave Old Bagan, at least we would have had the satisfaction of seeing it preserved. But our place has been taken by the offices of the archaeology department and the Lacquer College,” said Daw Maw Maw Aung.
Lacquerware is the economic lifeline of Bagan. The 1990 relocation seriously damaged the business, said U Ye Myint.
U Tharthana Pala, a monk formerly known as Captain Than Win who, as Nyaung-U township administrator from 1988 to 1991, was responsible for ordering the mass relocation under the military regime, said efforts to move the residents had begun during the socialist era but were never followed through.
“Ordinary people were never supposed to live in Old Bagan. It was the home of kings and princes,” he said.
He added that the authorities at the time feared that individual goldmining could undermine the foundations of the religious buildings, and that private homes were obscuring the views of pagodas.
“Only the military government was capable of relocating the city. I don’t know how the hotels came to be in Old Bagan because they weren’t there in my day,” he said. “The government did not have enough money to provide the necessary facilities. It was their duty to relocate the residents. People now say it was a violation of human rights. But there were no human rights at the time.”
Already once evicted in 1990, Bagan residents fear the latest heritage status bid may prompt another forced relocation.