Draft 17 September 2013: published as unesco in Southeast Asia: World Heritage Sites in Comparative Perspective



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Draft 17 September 2013: published as UNESCO in Southeast Asia: World Heritage Sites in Comparative Perspective, Institute of Asian Studies, Universiti Brunei Darussalam, Working Paper Series No 4, 2013.


UNESCO in Southeast Asia: World Heritage Sites in Comparative Perspective*
Victor T. King
The region’s 33 UNESCO World Heritage Sites (WHS) make a significant contribution to national identity, international profile, and government plans for domestic and international tourism development. Yet we still know very little about these sites in comparative terms. The sites are defined generally as those of ‘universal human value’.

Once UNESCO has inscribed a site then it becomes ‘a validation of quality’ and even more importantly it confirms its ‘authenticity’; these attributes can and usually do provide significant attractions for the international tourism market and governments also deploy them for political and economic purposes. Moreover, they are globally important, but they are also locally demarcated sites which are the focus of cultural encounters, social and political conflicts, and tensions and accommodations between competing interests (international bodies, national governments and their agencies, NGOs, conservation experts, tourists and local communities). They provide the ideal laboratories for multi-disciplinary analysis, bringing together perspectives from history, political science, economics, geography-ecology, sociology and anthropology.
Some preliminary and summary observations are presented here from a four-year British Academy-ASEASUK-funded project (2009-2013) designed to examine a range of both cultural and natural sites across seven countries in the Southeast Asian region. As far as I am aware this is the first large-scale comparative research programme of its kind and, among other issues, it considers how sites are being managed and how they are coping with the conflicting pressures to which they are subject in a globalising heritage industry and in serving as symbols of identity and prestige in national policy-making and development plans. In comparing sites within and beyond a particular country I draw out lessons for best practice in order to assist UNESCO and national governments in relation to their concerns about heritage protection, conservation and tourism development.
*Previous versions of this paper as a PowerPoint presentation have been delivered at conferences in Oxford and Cambridge 2011, 2012 and 2013, as a public lecture at Universiti Brunei Darussalam in September 2012, and in seminars at Ateneo de Manila in June 2012, Macau University of Science and Technology in July 2013 and Universiti Malaysia Sarawak in August 2013. This paper is, in part at least, a reiteration and reorganisation of some of the material that has already been conveyed in King and Parnwell (2010, 2011) and King (2012). My sincere thanks go to my colleague Michael Parnwell for his scholarly collaboration in gathering and co-publishing material on Thailand. The section on Melaka is based on my own field research, and also with reference to the important work of Nigel Worden. The section on the Philippines refers, with due appreciation, to the research of Johanna Fross and Erik Akpedonu.
Introductory Remarks

World Heritage has become a global language, a world of its own, recreating and representing particular cultures, ethnic groups, and/or national icons to be shared universally’ (Keiko Miura, 2011a: 9).



This provisional and critical analysis of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization)-inscribed sites in Southeast Asia has emerged from a four-year (2009-2013) cross-national, multidisciplinary comparative programme of coordinated team research on selected World Heritage Sites (WHS) across the region entitled World Heritage Sites in Southeast Asia: Cross-cultural and Management Perspectives. The research team comprises Victor King, Janet Cochrane, Michael Hitchcock, and Michael Parnwell, with research assistance provided by Sigrid Lenaerts, Goh Hong Ching, Jayesh Paranjape, and Joanna Fross, and involving local researchers including Kannapa Pongponrat (Mahidol University, and now at the Asian Institute of Technology), Jayum Jawan (Universiti Putra Malaysia), I Nyoman Darma Putra (Universitas Udayana), Erik Akpedonu (Institute of Philippine Culture, Ateneo de Manila), and Kusmayadi Husein (Sahid Institute of Tourism). Others associated with this programme of work and those who have contributed to our previous edited volumes on heritage issues in Southeast Asia include Henning Borchers (Peace Brigades International, Indonesia, and New Zealand Human Rights Commission), Adèle Esposito (Ecole Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture de Paris-Belleville/International Institute of Asian Studies, Leiden-Amsterdam), Robert(o) Gozzoli (Mahindol University International College), Gwynn Jenkins (consultant in architectural heritage and cultural anthropology, Penang), Mark Johnson (University of Hull), Fiona Kerlogue (Horniman Museum), Keiko Miura (Georg-August-Universität Göttingen/Waseda University), Ooi Keat Gin (Universiti Sains Malaysia), Philippe Peycam (International Institute of Asian Studies, Leiden-Amsterdam), Annabel Vallard (Université libre de Bruxelles), Vu Hong Lien (School of Oriental and African Studies) and Tim Winter (University of Western Sydney).

The paper focuses on three countries: Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines, though members of the research team or those associated with it have also undertaken field research in the four remaining countries which have World Heritage Sites inscribed by UNESCO: Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia, with some of the fieldwork spanning the last twenty years. Most recently some preliminary research has also been carried out in Brunei Darussalam by Victor King. Although the sultanate has no heritage sites at the moment, it signed the UNESCO Convention in 2011 and has aspirations to nominate sites in the near future.


Among other matters, the research examines the tensions that exist between the often competing interests, understandings and agendas of the various stakeholders involved in these globally important sites and the various pressures which are brought to bear on them from the stakeholders involved: local communities, national governments and their provincial and local agencies, international conservation organisations and associated experts and researchers, tourists (both domestic and international) and civil society institutions. It also needs to be noted that the act and process of inscription as a World Heritage Site also generates new actors, institutions and regulations (Miura, 2011a: 23). In addition, the project has a policy and practical dimension in that in comparing sites within and beyond a particular country it is intended to draw out lessons for best practice to contribute to UNESCO and national government thinking and approaches to heritage, conservation and tourism development. Specifically it considers whether or not these competing tensions and pressures are being or can be resolved, and what policy options work best in particular circumstances (and see for a general treatment of these management issues, Leask and Fyall, 2006; Esposito and Gaulis, 2010; and also Miura, 2011a on Angkor). The research therefore has a wide-ranging academic, conceptual and empirical focus but also seeks to present findings and recommendations which will feed into policy, management and decision-making about these sites designated as of ‘universal human value’.
International organisations like UNESCO and the World Heritage Centre in Paris, as well as its associated bodies including the Paris-based International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) based in Gland, Switzerland, and the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM) in Rome, impose a set of conservation and protection requirements on the sites which are inscribed on the World Heritage List. These requirements are designed to ensure that the characteristics of the site (in some sense its ‘authenticity’) which were acknowledged as of ‘universal human value’ in the process of inscription, and derive from the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World’s Cultural and Natural Heritage (UNESCO, 1972; Francioni, 2008; and also see, for example, UNESCO, 1983, 2003, 2012) are protected, and, if appropriate, enhanced. However, these measures for protection and conservation do not always sit easily with national government interest in for example increasing their revenue from tourism and therefore promoting these sites in the national and international market-place, and in deploying them as symbolic centres for the construction and promotion of national identity and placing them in a national historical context.
Some cultural sites like Angkor in Cambodia play a significant role in nationalist history and are therefore sites of political engagement and contestation whilst also serving as major international tourist attractions and a resource for national socio-economic development (see, for example Winter, 2007). Other urban-based cultural sites and tourist venues like Ayutthaya in Thailand, Luang Prabang in Laos, George Town (Penang) and Melaka in Malaysia and Hué in central Vietnam are sites in which local communities reside or where people live and work in close proximity to them so that in this sense they are ‘living’ social and cultural landscapes with all the attendant problems presented for the conservation of built forms, the control of local residents and workers and the management of tourism. Natural sites like the national parks of Gunung Mulu and Kinabalu in Malaysian Borneo, Ujong Kulon in west Java, Indonesia and Khao Yai in central Thailand are crucially important reservoirs of biological diversity and centres for scientific research as well as places visited by eco-tourists and those who come for weekend leisure breaks, camping and trekking; they again present management issues in relation to both environmental protection and tourism development and control.
Given the status of these cultural and natural sites, the level of international attention and interest in their protection, conservation and management, the importance which governments attach to them as vital elements of national heritage, and in the case of cultural sites in particular, as crucial building blocks of national identity, as well as their role as a focus of tourism interest and activity, they present complex arenas within which a range of pressures, interactions and encounters can be examined and addressed. This paper touches on several issues: (1) how different constituencies construct, present, re-present, reshape and contest heritage; (2) the ideological control and manipulation of the sites which governments frequently exert on what they consider to be important elements of national identity, nation-building, history, achievement and international image; (3) the pressures which tourism exerts on these sites and the problems raised by government involvement in the promotion of and planning for tourism and other kinds of development; (4) the importance of encouraging the kinds of tourists (whether domestic or international) who are genuinely interested in and wish to be informed about sites as testaments to the cultural achievements of past generations, or at the very least to provide informative literature, signage, audio-visual materials and guides (without these being overly intrusive) so that the sites can be better understood, enlivened and contextualised; (5) the role of sites and what they are seen to represent as expressions of the particular everyday lives, circumstances, views and thoughts of those who engage with them and as expressions of wider political, economic and cultural issues; in other words, they serve not only as subjects of discourse but they enable the creation and elaboration of discourse; they are also part of a process of separating cultural resources from the local, usually active and ‘living’ situation within which they are embedded and relocating them in a global heritage context which emphasises authenticity, tradition and timelessness; (6) the variations in the effects of change and local responses to these effects across communities and areas within the same site and between sites; (7) the issue of local communities who live in or around the site and their involvement in or exclusion from WHS. Communities have often been removed from sites and restricted in their movement and livelihoods in the interest of conservation and to recreate cultural sites as historic or archaeological parks for the purpose of tourism promotion; and finally (8) these sites provide ‘a new genre of community, both imagined and real’ comprising ‘a new social space, new values and borders’ (Miura, 2010: 103); although the importance of WHS carries their importance and influence beyond their borders in that they are part of national and international flows of people, capital, ideas and values, they can also be seen as defined, bounded and localised spaces within which there are encounters, exchanges and conflicts; and finally (9) the process and implications of converting a local site into a national, public and global one, and, specifically in relation to certain cultural sites, their conversion from a sacred to a profane state need to be investigated.
The methods adopted in the research programme were relatively standard ones. We assembled a significant number of researchers, research assistants and associates to work in a cross-regional, multidisciplinary environment and to enable us to cover a large number of sites. In some sites we undertook pilot studies and rapid appraisal; wherever possible we have recorded sites in considerable photographic detail and compiled ‘photo-essays’ which relate images to narrative, analysis and text (see, for example, King and Parnwell, 2010 [and see 2011]; and King 2012); we have used UNESCO reports and other documentation, relevant tourist web-sites and tourist blogs (some of the detail in this paper is drawn from the World Heritage Centre’s site http://whc.unesco.org/); structured interviews of key personnel involved in the management, protection, conservation and promotion of these sites; questionnaire surveys of both local and international tourists; and, finally, focused conference panels and workshops.
Heritage and Heritage Tourism Defined
We know that heritage, both cultural and natural, is not handed down unchanged and pristine from one generation to another. It is subject to selection, construction, negotiation and contestation in the context of more general processes of local and national identity formation and in the arena of cultural politics (Hitchcock and King, 2003a, 2003b: 3-13; and see Harrison and Hitchcock, 2005 [2004]). Smith usefully summarises a set of key issues pertaining to heritage: questions about its ownership, its appropriate use, access to it as against conservation needs, heritage as a commodity, as entertainment and as an educational medium, and finally the interpretation and representation of heritage forms (2003:103).
As Miura argues eloquently, heritage is a concept which is difficult to define (2011a) and Herbert gives expression to this difficulty in suggesting that it is ‘among the undefinables’, though he categorises heritage into three broad types: ‘cultural’, ‘natural’ and ‘built environments’ (1989:10-12). In a narrow and simple sense heritage is ‘a legacy; a set of traditions, values, or treasured material things’ (Universal Dictionary, 1987: 721). Smith, taking the meaning somewhat further and emphasising human agency and the active engagement with heritage, proposes that it is distinct from but related to ‘the past’ and to ‘history’, and comprises ‘the contemporary use of the past, including both its interpretation and re-interpretation’ (2003:82). In introducing the notion of interpretation, which suggests that heritage is constructed, given meaning and imbued with significance, we move into a much broader conceptualisation of heritage which pertains to concepts of identity and nationalism operating within the arena of cultural politics (Peleggi, 1996: 432; Peleggi, 2002). In this latter sense heritage, presented and re-presented as something which relates to the past and which is in some way given special value or significance as ‘treasure’ or ‘legacy’, is constructed and appropriated by the state and its agents as an object worthy of political, economic and ‘touristic’ attention, although usually only certain items are selected for this purpose and others are discarded.
Black and Wall state that ‘the sites selected to represent the country’s heritage will also have strong implications for both collective and individual identity and hence the creation of social realities’ (2001: 123). In post-colonial developing states this process of identity construction is an even more urgent task and the need, in Anderson’s terms (1991:178-185), to ‘imagine’ the nation leads to the selection and deployment of archaeological finds and heritage sites to present images of national resilience, unity, and innovation, often in the context of an ‘imagined’ golden or glorious age of endeavour and achievement (Glover, 2003:17). The ‘essence’ or ‘genius’ of the nation is usually traced back to a glorious past and to benevolent and enlightened government when everything that is now cherished as demarcating and defining the nation was created and set in motion. Sukhothai and Ayutthaya in Thailand, Angkor in Cambodia and Melaka in Malaysia are pressed into playing this role in the national imagination.
In summary then the concept of heritage refers to tangible and concrete elements of the past (buildings, monuments, artefacts, sites and constructed landscapes), as well as those aspects of culture expressed in behaviour, action and performance (usually referred to as ‘intangible cultural heritage’) which are interpreted, valued and judged to be worthy of our attention, interest and protection. In addition to the state other domestic agents involved in the creation of meanings and understandings in relation to heritage and the past comprise local tourists and those communities which live in or in close proximity to heritage sites and those who secure their livelihood from working there. With specific reference to Thailand Reynolds has already examined the creation of a Thai identity and Thai-ness in some detail through the media, education and institutions such as the military and the monkhood (1993; and see Paritta, 2002). He draws attention to the increasing importance of tourism in ‘the development and marketing of Thai-ness’ and the ways in which the promotion of Thailand as a tourist destination also helps shape local perceptions of identity (1998: 135). A very significant element in this exercise is heritage and particularly heritage sites which are given recognition through UNESCO, ICOMOS, IUCN and ICCROM because it provides these locations with both ‘international status and authenticity’ (ibid; and see Peleggi, 1996: 433, and 2002). Yet we should also note that ‘remnants of Thailand’s past’ have been used to construct a national identity since the foundation of Bangkok and the Chakri dynasty, and these remnants are ‘excellent resources for building a politically useful heritage’ (Van Esterik, 2000: 109; and see Evrard and Prasit, 2009b: 239-245).
As already mentioned heritage is also contested and transformed not only by domestic agents but also by global actors, including representatives of international organisations such as UNESCO, researchers and international tourists. It has therefore become a highly politicised project to do with identity and conflicts over its character and trajectory (Pires, 2010). UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre based in Paris and its associated Committee which meets annually designates World Heritage Sites as of either ‘cultural’ or ‘natural’ or ‘mixed’ (both cultural and natural) importance, and more particularly as sites of ‘outstanding universal value’ (http://whc.unesco.org/en/; and see Adams, 2003:91-93; Hitchcock, 2004: 461-466; Long and Sweet, 2006:445-469; Peleggi, 1996: 432; Rössler, 2006; Smith, 2003: 38, 105-116; UNESCO, 2012). Since the late 1960s heritage has been internationalised by such bodies as UNESCO which has ‘helped to generate a new set of understandings of culture and built heritage’ (Askew, 1996: 184). Peleggi says with reference to national heritage in Thailand that the past and its expression in built forms are ‘iconicised’ and they become ‘the only reliable sources of national identity’ (1996). They are displayed both to an international audience and to the citizenry, but, of course, given processes of conservation and landscaping their authenticity is invariably staged.
The Convention Concerning the Protection of the World’s Cultural and Natural Heritage, which was introduced to protect global heritage, was adopted by UNESCO in 1972, and the ‘criteria for selection’ of sites to be included on the World Heritage List (and see UNESCO, 1983; see list of UNESCO sites in ‘A Southeast Asian Context’ below, and for UNESCO Tentative Lists on Southeast Asia see Appendix 1). Until 2004 these sites were selected using six cultural and four natural criteria, but since then they have been brought together in revised guidelines to comprise a composite list of ten criteria displayed on the Centre’s web-pages under the title ‘The Criteria for Selection’. As one would expect the list is sprinkled with superlatives: for example, the first is ‘to represent a masterpiece of human creative genius’, another ‘to bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared’, yet another ‘to be an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history’, and another ‘to be an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement, land-use, or sea-use which is representative of a culture (or cultures), or human interaction with the environment especially when it has become vulnerable under the impact of irreversible change’.
It is interesting in the list that one ‘cultural’ criterion has been given something of a subsidiary status in that the Committee considers that it ‘should preferably be used in conjunction with other criteria’. Heritage using this criterion corresponds with a broad anthropological definition of ‘culture’. In other words it is ‘to be directly or tangibly associated with events or living traditions, with ideas, or with beliefs, with artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance’. More recently in its Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity (2003, and see Appendix 2), UNESCO has reaffirmed the importance of oral tradition, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festivals, and traditional craftsmanship in its criteria for selecting heritage sites (other relevant conventions are the NARA Document on Authenticity [1994], the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage [2001] and the UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions [2005]). Finally, there is a criterion that partly overlaps with notions of traditions, ideas and beliefs, but which addresses the dimension of cultural exchange and process within the context of broader cultural regions, that is: ‘to exhibit an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning or landscape design’. In sum, UNESCO’s concept of cultural heritage is very broad, but, given those cultural sites currently on the World Heritage List, the emphasis is still on groups of buildings, monuments and settlements which require some form of protection, conservation and preservation for posterity, and are therefore tangible sites of historical, aesthetic, artistic, architectural, archaeological, scientific, technological or ethnological value.
UNESCO’s definition of ‘natural heritage’ in global terms refers to areas which embody outstanding physical, biological, and geological features and those which have significance in terms of uniqueness and their importance in the evolution of the natural world. They may ‘contain superlative natural phenomena’ or be ‘areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance’. They may be ‘outstanding examples representing major stages of earth’s history’ or ‘representing significant on-going ecological and biological processes in the evolution and development of….ecosystems and communities of plants and animals’. Finally, there is emphasis on the importance of natural habitats where biodiversity needs to be conserved, particularly where there are threats to ‘species of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science and conservation’.
In the Southeast Asian context just over a third of the designated World Heritage Sites are ‘natural’, including national parks. As of 2013, and following the meeting in Cambodia in June 2013, the 21-member World Heritage Committee working on behalf of UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre had 981 sites on its list; of these 759 were cultural, 193 natural and 29 were mixed sites; there are currently 1,583 properties on what is called the Tentative List (TL), a provisional list approved by UNESCO for those countries or ‘state parties’ which have submitted them for possible future consideration for inscription as World Heritage Sites. UNESCO has also placed 44 sites on a ‘World Heritage in Danger Llist’ including the Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatra. Finally, in the Asia Pacific region the majority of the WHS are to be found, not unexpectedly in China, India and to a lesser extent Japan.
Here we should also re-emphasise the major preoccupations of those international organisations which focus on Southeast Asian heritage. UNESCO (and its regional offices in Bangkok and Jakarta), ICOMOS, IUCN, ICCROM, The World Monuments Fund, The International Council of Museums (and its Asia Pacific Organisation), and The Getty Conservation Institute, and, at the regional level, the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organisation (SEAMEO) and the Southeast Asian Regional Centre for Archaeology and Fine Arts (SPAFA) invariably stress the concepts of ‘tradition’ and continuity, expressed particularly in built heritage and material culture, which needs to be designated and given special attention, managed, monitored, conserved and protected (http://icom.museum/; http://www.getty.edu/conservation/; and see Vines, 2005). Even though there is recognition of the importance of ‘living’ cultural sites, overall this emphasis on outstanding cultural (and natural) legacies, which is also expressed in the heritage tourism industry, tends to indulge in nostalgia for the past and in the presentation of the exotic and an idealised and ‘essentialised’ Orient (Kennedy and Williams, 2001; and see Berliner, 2012).
‘Heritage tourism’ has also proved difficult to define and categorise. Smith remarks that terms such as ‘heritage tourism’, ‘arts tourism’, ‘ethnic tourism’ or ‘indigenous tourism’ are often used interchangeably. However, she prefers to classify them, along with ‘urban cultural tourism’, ‘rural cultural tourism’, ‘creative tourism’ and ‘popular cultural tourism’ as separate sub-types of a broad category of ‘cultural tourism’, recognising that cultural tourists as a highly differentiated category consume not just the cultural products of the past but also a range of contemporary cultural forms (2003:29-44; Clarke, 2000:23-36; Hughes, 2000:111-122). Cultural tourism is therefore no longer seen, as it was in the past, as ‘a niche form of tourism, attracting small [sic], well-educated and high-spending visitors’ (ibid:45). Heritage tourism therefore comprises that part of cultural tourism which, according to Richter, is ‘applied by some to almost anything about the past that can be visited’ (1999: 108). Tourism in this case becomes a ‘history-making business’ or at least an activity which commercialises the past (Shaw and Williams, 2002:203). The complexities of tourism as a set of socio-cultural phenomena also present problems for social science, particularly anthropological analysis. As Ness advises in her detailed and perceptive study of the development of tourism in Davao City, southern Mindanao in the 1990s, when tourism expanded rapidly, ‘it is nearly impossible for anthropology’s classical paradigms of culture to handle tourism, since it tends to involve global or “supercultural”, as well as multicultural, pseudocultural, and transcultural processes’ (2003: 4).
In summary UNESCO, though it appears to operate in a neutral, rational and logical environment based on the principles of heritage assessment and evaluation which have been agreed, and which are administered at the global level, is in fact deeply involved and implicated in the politics of culture. Miura captures the dilemmas with which UNESCO has to grapple in a sequence of questions: ‘what is heritage, who is the rightful owner, what can be practised and what not, what rules of ownership should be adopted, how much access to heritage various actors be allowed, who is to manage heritage and how to do it [?]’ (2011b: 98). UNESCOisation, in the desire to protect, preserve and conserve also incorporates sites into a process of standardisation: sites are compared one with another; they are evaluated and graded according to a set of universally agreed criteria and they are then branded in terms of the set of characteristics which UNESCO has identified and approved for them.

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