Armed skirmishes hinder cultural recognition from UNESCO

“We don’t want fighting to take place in Mrauk-U’s historical zone. It is an ethic everyone from civilized societies must follow and respect. That’s why we have called for a cease fire to save Mrauk-U,”

By Khaing Roe La 15 Apr 2019

Khaing Roe La

Historical pagodas and stupas made of stones in Mrauk-U, rightly known as the stone city, represent a strong sense of tradition for the Arakanese.

Consisting of a fortress, moat, trenches and fortified walls, it is an ancient city that was ruled by 48 kings from the Rakhine Kingdom.

As of now the ancient capital of Mrauk-U is attempting to be included on UNESCO’s world heritage list. But, the outbreak of explosions and the barrage of gunfire in the town hinders the process for recognition on UNESCO’s list.

The continual sound of artillery and gun fire that goes on around the ancient cultural icons is a threat to the legacy these structures represent and symbolize.

The gunfire around the ancient city has made a negative impact on efforts to list Mrauk-U town as a World Heritage site, said Dr Than Htike, Director of the Department of Archaeology (Mrauk-U).

“The main focus is on a management plan because incidents related to armed conflicts occurred in the zone where the historical legacy has been preserved,” Dr Than Htike said.

Relevant authorities started their efforts to nominate the historical zone on the UNESCO list in March 2017 and they are preparing to submit their application by February in 2020.

During the armed conflict on March 15, the bottom of the Anouk Myay Htae Zedi in Sinchasake ward was destroyed by artillery shells and a security gate belonging to a pagoda near Htotekant ordination hall was sprayed with bullets.

The Tatmadaw claimed that the shooting was a result of battles between the Tatmadaw and the Arakan Army (AA).

“If we’re engaged in gunfire with an opposition group near homes we retaliate from that residential area. If we exchange gunfire around monasteries the same thing happens. But we never start shooting first. They use the city as a protective shield and shoot at us,” said Colonel Win Zaw Oo from the Western Command.

However, the shooting on March 15 and 18 in Mrauk-U’s town area was from the Tatmadaw side only, there was no clash with the AA, resident witnesses in Mrauk-U said.

The AA also said that every location used in gunfire exchanges in Mrauk-U wasn’t necessarily a battle ground and they never use the city area for fighting.

According to the AA’s statement and comment, the AA did not instigate fighting in Mrauk-U town.

“We never launch armed attacks from pagodas or residential areas they said. There is no reason to do so at historical heritage places. We never do it,” said Khaing Thukha, spokesperson of the AA.

Bullets hit a Buddha statue from Mt. Rakhamuni at Sinchasake ward in Mrauk-U on March 18, destroying its nose and left hand.

Constant accusations between the Tatmadaw and the AA over who fired artillery shells and bullets in the ancient city of Mrauk-U does not help protect pagodas, stupas and historical landmarks.

The city of Mrauk-U should be a demilitarized zone and the sound of any guns or mortar fire is absolutely not necessary in the town.

U Oo Hla Saw, Pyithu Hluttaw representative for Mrauk-U Township, condemned those who fired guns and artillery towards ancient buildings.

“The government, the Tatmadaw and ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture are exclusively responsible for launching light and heavy artillery shells on the pagoda and stupas,” he said.

For the time being, the Myanmar Archaeology Association, Yangon University Students’ Union and the 88-Rakhine Generation Social Development Organization have called for a cease fire in Mrauk-U Township.

“Those historical landmarks are unique and precious for not only Arakanese but also for all Myanmar citizens and the rest of the world. Residents are so worried about artillery shells falling here,” U Tun Ni Win, one of the residents from Mrauk-U, said unhappily.

The ongoing clashes in Mrauk-U Township have halted the process of seeking to list Mrauk-U as one of UNESCO’s world heritage sites.

“Currently, we have to pause the process due to the clashes in the region,” said Daw Khin Than, chairperson of the Mrauk-U Ancient Cultural Heritage Conservation Group.  

Moreover, some experts on the team who are working for nominating Mrauk-U for the world heritage list have returned to their homes for security reasons.

Daw Khin Than added that she was concerned about delaying the process of submission of the World Heritage Nomination.

Shock waves caused by heavy mortar fire are threatening historical pagodas and stupas in the ancient heritage zone, people are concerned about the destruction of these landmarks.

“We can’t assess the damage to the zone. We are afraid of even going outside,” Daw Khin Than said.

The Annanda Sandra stone inscription from Mrauk-U is recognized as an ancient stone inscription in the Asia pacific region, and relevant authorities have been trying to include it on the world heritage list.

So, we all have call for no armed conflicts in the historical region of Mrauk-U.

“We don’t want fighting to take place in Mrauk-U’s historical zone. It is an ethic everyone from civilized societies must follow and respect. That’s why we have called for a cease fire to save Mrauk-U,” Daw Khin Than said.

Photo - Chan Aye