World Monuments Fund turns its focus to Myanmar's heritage sites

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 June, 2013, 5:55pm

As the world changes, so does the orbit of the World Monuments Fund (WMF).

Set up in 1965 to save and preserve some of the world's most treasured historical and cultural heritage sites, the New York-based private non-profit organisation today works in more than 90 countries and has close to 70 sites - ranging from ancient to modern, grand to the more common - under its "watch list".

In 2012, the WMF contributed more than US$90 million in funding to these listed sites; the organisation raised an additional US$174 million from donors and other sources.

Of those sites, 14 are in Asia including Thailand, Japan, Vietnam and the mainland, where the WMF is already working on a large-scale restoration project at the Forbidden City in Beijing. Next year, its reach in the region is expected to expand into Myanmar, a country that is undergoing major political, social and economic changes.

When its president, Thein Sein, met his US counterpart Barack Obama last month - the first Myanmar leader in almost 50 years to set foot in the White House - the historic visit reignited relations between the two countries.

WMF's president and chief executive, Bonnie Burnham, noted this gradual diplomatic shift after her team made a trip there late last year. Myanmar is now very much on its radar. "When the US had an embargo on relations with that country, it didn't make any sense for us to invest time and effort because we wouldn't be able to do anything," she says. "But now the situation has changed radically overnight."

With help from a local conservation group, the Yangon Heritage Trust (YHT), her team was able to identify a number of priorities that it had forwarded to the US embassy: "It's a complete reversal where the US government didn't recognise Burma and now the US government is trying to help them and it happens very quickly."

At the moment, the organisation says it supports "in spirit" the efforts of the YHT, but has yet to commit any financial or technical resources. Neither has Myanmar been selected for its watch list, but the WMF hopes 2014 will present an opportunity for them to work more closely together. Next year's watch list will be announced in early October.

Burnham says the WMF is concerned with the historic fabric of Yangon. She says the YHT has been trying to get government regulations in place to protect late 19th-century and early 20th-century colonial and old government buildings. "A lot of them had already changed hands and nobody knows what's going to happen to them in terms of how they will be used or whether they'll be torn down," says Burnham.

The Yangon trust is also trying to work out the economics of saving these buildings and looking into whether a commercial model is more viable. "That's been done in other cities, particularly in Asia. Singapore and Penang have had very successful heritage revivals so if they need help with that we'd be prepared to help them bring in some expertise," Burnham says.

Something else that she thinks the country needs to preserve are "the very beautiful monasteries made of wood in the north of the country. Some of them date to mediaeval times and some to the 17th to 18th century."

This year the WMF received US$131,800 in grants from the US government and the US embassy in Bangkok to carry out conservation work at Wat Chaiwatthanaram, a Buddhist temple in the historic city of Ayutthaya in Thailand. The organisation, with support from the Freeman Foundation, also gave a US$250,000 grant to a local non-profit to restore and preserve the historic cityscape in Kesennuma in Japan's Miyagi prefecture that was damaged in the devastating earthquake and tsunami in 2011.

Burnham says the biggest challenge ahead is to train and bring people in different countries into the global standard in terms of practice in this field of conservation. "So finding people who want to commit to working with us for the next several years and training them is going to be the most challenging part," she says.