Monday, June 8, 2009

Experts Criticize Junta’s Temple Renovation Work

The Irrawaddy News

Burma’s state-run media has broken its long silence on the collapse of the historic Danok Pagoda, calling the structure’s failure a result of renovation work.

An estimated 20 people died in the accident.

Renovation was being carried out swiftly to complete the work before the onset of the rainy season, and the main structure was overloaded, said the story.

The 2,300-year-old Buddhist temple, located in Danok Model Village in Dalla Township in Rangoon Division, was approximately 120 feet in circumference and 50-feet high. It is revered for being a site where two Buddha relics are housed.

Following the accident, the regime had blocked public access to the pagoda site and suppressed news of the May 30 accident until Thursday, when the The New Light of Myanmar gave an official version of why the ancient structure collapsed.

After the collapse, the temple’s committee feared many of its precious ornaments were destroyed or lost in the accident. A resident of Danok model village said, “Authorities looked for the diamond orb, relics and other precious ornaments kept inside the stupa.” There was no report of what had been recovered.

Three weeks before the collapse of the pagoda, Kyaing Kyaing, the wife of Burmese junta chief Snr-Gen Than Shwe, along with family members and senior military officials’ families, attended a ceremony at which a hti, a sacred golden umbrella, was placed on top of the pagoda.

Over the years, many Burma historians and scholars have expressed alarm about the loss of historical structures, often citing the military regime’s handling of the Pagan temple complex in central Burma.

"Nowadays, a group of people called ‘pagoda trustees’ are immensely efficient in raising funds and giving a ‘new look’ to ancient monuments of religion without the least regard for restoration," said Dr Than Tun, a late professor of history and a member of the Burma Historical Society. "In fact they have over-repaired everything."

In a 1995 research paper titled "Defacing Old Pagan," he wrote: "In addition to all the natural and obvious dangers to antiquity, there are a whole lot of seemingly religious-minded people who think it a great merit to replace dilapidated images with new ones, bright with gold and gems, or to repaint an old shrine with variegated colors."

A scholar in Burma’s Archaeological Department said, “The government does not know the meaning of restoration and preservation. Now their work has destroyed history. Some ancient cultures and arts are defaced and vanished because of their mismanagement.”

G H Luce, one of the foremost European scholars on Burma, wrote in a 1969 three-volume book, “Old Burma-Early Pagan": "Most of the famous pagodas of Burma have been repaired so often that one can say little for certain about the original shape of their upper parts."

In 1997, a news story reported on the junta’s systematic looting of pagoda treasures at several temples in Upper Burma.

In one infamous incident, authorities broke open the famous Mahamuni Buddha image in Mandalay to search for a legendary ruby.

Some scholars have accused the junta of defacing or destroying Burmese culture and heritage.

In 2005, a leading archeological expert said the military regime was waging an “archaeological blitzkrieg” against the legendary Buddhist treasures of Pagan.

The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has not recognized Pagan as a World Heritage Site and efforts to work with the regime have been stymied over the years because of the junta’s rejection of UNESCO efforts to conduct work at an international level of restoration.

In 2005, the government was widely criticized for building a Nanmyint (royal tower), or “viewing tower,” about 60 meters high nearby ancient Pagan temples.

Christian Manhart, who works with UNESCO, said the viewing tower is “a Disney-style fantasy version of one of the world’s great religious and historical sites.”

Pagan expert Pierre Pichard called the tower “a cultural crime.”

A scholar of Burma’s Archaeological Department said, “Burmese authorities should understand the meanings of restoration and preservation. If they reconstruct completely, they will in effect destroy all the ancient culture and arts. The best way is simple preservation which does not damage the original structure. For good examples, you can look at Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Borobudur in Indonesia—both are UNESCO World Heritage sites.”

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