BAGAN (Myanmar): Defying an international outcry, Myanmar's military rulers have begun building a nearly 60m-tall viewing tower in the midst of this ancient temple city, one of Asia's greatest archaeological sites.
The project is adding to the severe criticism already heaped on Myanmar's junta for its allegedly unplanned and inaccurate rebuilding of many ruins, and its record in general of suppressing human rights and democracy.
“It's a cultural crime,'' said Pierre Pichard, a Bagan expert at the French Research School of the Far East, in Thailand.
“It will be ... conspicuous and ugly, and it's totally crazy to add such a structure in the middle of an ancient historical site,” he said.
The 1,000-year old temple complex is on a par with Cambodia's Angkor temples – an unmatched vista of thousands of Buddhist temples and monuments spread among rice fields.
There are giant circular pagodas with soaring domes, small temples with corncob-shaped spires, and exquisitely proportioned ziggurats, or terraced pyramids.
More than 4,400 pagodas and 3,000 other religious structures of bricks and stones were built in this city, Myanmar's former capital, during a 243-year period from the 11th to 13th centuries, the result of extraordinary Buddhist fervour.
Today, 2,237 ruins and temples remain, many of them still used by worshippers.
The junta says the tower, roughly 16 storeys, will give tourists a bird's-eye view of the city and they will be barred from clambering over ancient pagodas that are being damaged by thousands of invading feet every day.
Tour guides say the brick and mortar edifice, higher than every temple except one, will ruin the beauty of the area. But the fear of the dictatorial junta is such that no one is willing to voice opposition publicly.
Unesco, which has the power to grant or withhold prestigious World Heritage status and the accompanying funding, has spoken loudly against the tower.
“It's a very big mistake. It sticks a big eyesore right in the middle of the site,'' said Richard Engelhardt, Unesco's Bangkok-based regional adviser for culture.
Nyunt Han, director general of the Dept of Archaeology, says his department has old documents that make precise reconstruction possible.
He said the tower was far from the historical heart where a few tall temples were the tourists' favourite.
“We selected the site with care,'' he said. “It won't obstruct the ancient beauty.''
The city's golden age ended in 1287, when it was overrun by the Mongol warrior, Kublai Khan. It became a ghost town, home to bandits and spirits. – AP
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