Dec 22, 2003

Myaingkalay cement factory damages Mon cultural site

The Myaingkalay cement factory near Pa'an is having a devastating affect on an important, but not well-known, Mon cultural treasure

Dear Kao Wao,

Regarding the Myaingkalay cement factory near Pa'an, as well as the serious human rights and environmental concerns which you mention, the factory is also having a devastating affect on an important, but not well-known, Mon cultural treasure.

The factory is situated close to the Kawgun Cave, on the West bank of the Salween (Thanlwin) River. Early every evening the nearby quarry is blasted with dynamite, to extract materials for the factory. The blasting can be heard & felt in Pa’an town (the first time I experienced this, I thought it was the Tatmadaw shelling the KNLA!).

More alarming, the discharge causes substantial vibrations and damage at the cave. Artifacts at the Kawgun Cave date from the Pyu era, and the site has been a centre of religious devotion ever since. It consists of a long corridor-like fissure in the rock, which runs along the base of a huge limestone outcrop, semi-open to the sky & elements. This opens out into a small cave, with Buddha images. Like other Buddhist sites in lower Burma, the cave and associated structures are incredibly beautiful, and possess an air of great spirituality, and age-old religious and cultural significance. The Kawgun Cave is particularly noted for its thousands of magnificent (16-18th century?) terracotta plaques, which decorate the walls, to a height of up to 30 meters. These are often extraordinarily well-crafted and beautiful, and include many Buddha images, as well as episodes in Mon sacred and civil history (e.g. one group of large plaques depicts King Manuha of Thaton).

If this were Thailand, the cave would be a source of national pride, protected by the government, and promoted as a site for religious merit-making and tourism. However, this being Burma, the cave has been neglected. Until recently, this may have been a good thing, as the site’s charm has not been eroded by over-exposure: there are no stalls selling trinkets or cold drinks.

However, the daily blasting at the nearby Myaingkalay cement has caused many hundreds of plaques to be dislodged or otherwise damaged (also, as insurgency raged over this part of Burma in the 1940-70s, historically important elephant figures and other pieces were looted). Unless the blasting stops or the damage is alleviated, I worry that this wonderful religious and cultural site will be damaged beyond repair.

Best regards,
Ashley South