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Shwe-nandaw Kyaung, Myanmar: Protecting Our Cultural Heritage from Fire and Disasters

As someone interested in preservation from the perspective of protecting historic structures from fire and disasters, I had 40 hours sitting on planes and in airport lounges to consider what may lie ahead in terms of fire/disaster-related hazards and potential mitigation measures to help protect some of Myanmar’s remaining teak monasteries. While sitting there at 30,000 feet drafting some workshops on disasters for this trip, I couldn’t help but think how challenging a fire in a teak monastery would be to fight—not only for the local fire brigade but even for a fire brigade in a large city once the fire took hold, and what we may be able to do to help improve this in Myanmar.

In late January, I joined WMF’s Project Director Jeff Allen along with the additional team, including Boulos Isaac, Dr Alexey Kirichenko, and Dr Francois Tainturier, to assist with the first wave of efforts to help conserve and protect Shwe Nan-Daw Monastery in Mandalay. Shwe Nan-Daw Monastery is one of the last few remaining teak monasteries in Myanmar. It is a beautiful Buddhist monastery built in the 1800s and was once part of the royal palace at Amarapura. The monastery is built in the traditional Burmese architectural style and is heavily gilded with gold and beautiful teakwood carvings over its walls and roofs depicting Buddhist stories. It was fortunately dismantled and relocated prior to the bombing and fire that destroyed the palace during World War II. Our overall aim in this project therefore includes surveying, documenting, and assessing existing conditions at the monastery, creating training and conservation programs to restore the site and to help develop local capacity, and assist with the longer term site management. The project is supported in part by the U.S. Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation and the local U.S. embassy.

Upon landing, after a quick meal, a short night’s sleep, and a few introductions we were whisked away to start our site visits at several of the other teak monasteries to begin building our own capacity of the local culture and these beautiful buildings.

Our initial view upon approaching one of the monasteries that first day was through a haze of smoke arising from near the entrance. Somewhat alarmed as we approached, we realized the source: a boy not much older than 3 years old happily sitting almost in the fire experimenting with his first set of matches and twigs! Life seemed to bustle around him as usual, and no one was paying him any particular attention.

As we proceeded up the stairs to the wooden deck surrounding the monastery, and were taking off our shoes to enter, we noticed a makeshift grill sitting atop a bed of coals that was in turn sitting on the wooden deck charred by the heat from numerous meals cooked here. Upon entering the monastery, it did not cease. Ashtrays filled with cigarette butts. Candles placed precariously throughout. Exposed light bulbs leaning against dried wooden interiors. Undersized, poorly insulated electrical wiring with connections wrapped in plastic baggies plugged precariously into a series of extension cords wound their way around the monastery. Several of these ended in a contraption with flashing lights hanging on a wall that apparently converted power for the refrigerator and other appliances inside the monastery.

It was pretty apparent in these first few hours that we had our work cut out for us in helping to conserve—and protect—some of the last remaining teak monasteries in Myanmar.

As we continued on to other monasteries, additional hazards were encountered. The person guiding us through one monastery lit up a cigarette once we were inside. Old, high voltage electrical wiring sat precariously on the razor wire security fence. A plastic water bottle cut in half to provide protection of exposed electrical equipment from rain. More signs of burning of rubbish adjacent to these teak structures, and typically no shortage of combustible materials, including storage of materials that continued to accumulate over the years.

There were very good efforts started at Shwe Nan-Daw Monastery to help protect it from fire. No smoking signs around the site, clearing of brush and debris around the monastery, installation of a manual suppression system, as well as fire extinguishers and sand buckets. Plans had been developed as well to help in responding to a fire, describing what the staff would need to do.

These missions are more than just us going to places and building capacity locally. They are equally an opportunity for us to develop our own capacity and raise our awareness levels as to what has been done historically, as well as learning what can be done locally to protect these sites and what will be sustainable in the long term.

It was interesting, for instance, to learn that every few years a mixture of diesel and crude oil would be applied to the wood structure to keep termites away. In further inquiring of this process, we found that this mixture was often heated over an open flame to make it easier to apply. Likewise, there is a desire to burn candles, incense, and mosquito coils within the monasteries. Are there alternatives to these? How can we find ways to make these at least safer, while maintaining the intent of their traditional practices?

In light of this, a significant amount of time was spent at various teak monasteries, as well as the historic wooden U Bein bridge; meeting with local designers and architects, including the pre-eminent architect in Myanmar that re-designed and rebuilt the royal palace, among other projects; visiting local craftspeople who will likely be involved with the restoration of Shwe Nan-Daw Monastery; and talking with the local emergency responders about their resources, capabilities, and pre-planning should a fire occur. We also spent a significant amount of time helping the monks understand fire-related hazards and challenges and ways to deal with them cost-effectively.

In order to create awareness across a broad spectrum of stakeholders, WMF’s Jeff Allen established a series of capacity building workshops at the local Jefferson Center run by the U.S. embassy. WMF experts coming to Myanmar will assist in creating awareness among the local community about the work that WMF is undertaking. During this trip, I spoke about protecting cultural heritage from disasters to a full house, including senior members from the Department of Archaeology, the local fire department, and the central monastic body, as well as members of the public and several news agencies.

Overall, I continue to find it quite interesting to see the significant efforts that WMF makes in developing local capacity and opportunities not just in conservation, but on many levels. On this trip, whether it was bringing in the international photography expert Boulos Isaac to photograph not only our project, but to teach and develop photography skills through his workshops, or providing work and networking opportunities for several translators helping us, or teaching people skills from conservation to fire safety to sketching and documenting historic structures, there was a strong desire to be integrated into numerous aspects of the local community besides those involved with conservation.

In returning to New York City I couldn’t help but think how much easier it was to protect buildings here, yet the challenges of protecting historic structures like Shwe-nandaw Kyaung are much more intriguing and fulfilling to solve. While the concepts are the same—prevention, detection, notification, and suppression—the implementation will likely be different in providing risk-informed solutions that will need to be not only cost-effective, but also use local resources and people so they are sustainable in the long term, that do not adversely impact the historic fabric of the monastery, and that can be taught to the local people of Myanmar so they can replicate this in protecting their other historic structures.