Indonesian minister of culture’s public apology for destruction of archaeological site

Ministry issues apology for the destruction caused by the government-backed project

DELHI. The Indonesian minister for culture and tourism was forced to make a public apology after the government ignored urgent warnings and failed to halt a controversial new museum and visitor centre in Mojokerto, East Java, which caused extensive damage to important archaeological remains at Trowulan. The site is the capital of the Majapahit kings, Hindu rulers of the largest empire ever established in Southeast Asia.

The village of Trowulan in Mojokerto was added to Unesco’s World Heritage Site’s tentative list in 1995. Although it was first excavated in 1815 by Sir Stamford Raffles, much of its history is still shrouded in mystery. First established in 1292 when Majapahit king Raden Wijaya conquered Java with the help of a fleet sent from China by Kublai Khan, the empire was at its greatest during the rule of Hayam Wuruk from 1350 to 1389, finally dissolving by the early 16th century as Muslim rulers and European trading companies seized control of the region.

The surviving monuments are fewer and less spectacular than at Angkor or Pagan, the most notable being monumental brick gateways and ritual bathing pools. However, the spread of remains across an area of over 100 sq. km suggests that at its peak, the city was comparable to any of the great imperial capitals of Southeast Asia.

Ancient walls, figures and other artefacts are reported to have been damaged after 60 concrete pylons were driven into the ground and trenches were dug and filled with concrete to act as foundations for the 25bn rupee ($2.1m) Majapahit Information Centre or Pusat Informasi Majapahit which, to the consternation of archaeologists, was to be constructed on top of a ritual complex. Located within Majapahit Park, the centre was to be an archaeological museum based on models such as the Mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang in China with glass floors and walkways so visitors could see the excavations below. According to Baskoro Tedjo, the architect commissioned to prepare an alternate design for the centre, the concept was born of contingency since the government could not afford to buy an alternate site.

While fears about the impact of building on the site had been raised from the start, ironically an increase in looting and various other damage was given as a reason for the urgent implementation of the project. Bricks from the ancient city are found throughout the area and pilfering was indeed a problem with an estimated 5,000 families subsisting on the trade.

Whatever concerns existed over looting, many speculate that the government’s prime motivation was to unveil the completed centre ahead of elections later this year and capitalise on the symbolism of the Majapahit Empire. This would explain the haste in construction after the foundation stone was laid on 3 November by culture minister Jero Wacik and the reluctance to halt the project even after receiving orders from the Policy Directorate General of History and Archaeology on 19 December. The order followed recommendations from a team led by Professor Mundardjito, senior lecturer of Archaeology at the University of Indonesia, which inspected the site on 5 December. It has been reported that the government did not stop construction until early January.

The East Java Antiquities and Relics Conservation Agency (BP3) which was responsible for managing the project has been widely criticised in the local press for failing to prevent the damage, but director I Made Kusumajaya has said that the government edicts could not be contradicted.

It subsequently emerged that a number of heritage and planning laws had been contravened, punishable by substantial fines and jail sentences. A police enquiry into possible negligence remains active. Aside from the question of responsibility there remains much debate over the extent of the damage, the continued feasibility of the project, and even the architect in charge. Despite the damage sustained to the site, after some substantial amendments the project may continue in the same location but this remains to be confirmed.

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