COVID-19 and Security Issues Hamper Myanmar’s Efforts to List Mrauk-U with UN

By Zue Zue 19 January 2021

Yangon — COVID-19 and security issues are making it difficult for the government to continue with follow-up work to allow the nomination of Rakhine State’s Mrauk-U to become a Unesco World Heritage Site.

Myanmar submitted a draft nomination to the United Nations cultural agency in September 2019 and a final application in January 2020. But one year after submitting the final application, Myanmar has yet to finalize the management plan.

Field surveys could not be conducted in Mrauk-U amid fighting between Myanmar’s military and the Arakan Army (AA) that broke out in the township in March 2019 and continued until late last year. And Unesco has not been able to conduct a survey due to COVID-19.

Daw Khin Than, chairwoman of the Mrauk-U Heritage Trust, said: “Domestic and foreign experts and staff from Yangon and Naypyitaw can’t come to Mrauk-U due to instability. COVID-19 has also hampered the nomination process.”

Since coronavirus broke out in Myanmar in late March, the Department of Archaeology at the Ministry of Religious and Culture has barely cooperated with the Mrauk-U Heritage Trust in the process, she said.

“[Buildings] were damaged and lost rapidly. I’m afraid only the earth will be left to tell future Rakhine generations, citizens from Myanmar and the international community of the civilization,” Daw Khin Than told The Irrawaddy.

Rakhine State MP U Hla Thein Aung of Minbya Township submitted a proposal to the state parliament in September 2019 urging Myanmar’s military and the AA not to fight at Mrauk-U.

He warned of damage in Buthidaung and Mrauk-U townships, calling on the government to protect the area’s heritage. Archaeologists also called on both sides to spare Mrauk-U from fighting.

Though stability has been restored with Myanmar’s military and the AA observing an unofficial ceasefire since November, the archaeology department will not be able to resume field surveys until the threat of COVID-19 recedes, said U Than Zaw Oo, director of the department.

The department has, however, been holding online meetings since October last year to design management plans and reporting on damage to Mrauk-U.

“When experts from the International Council on Monuments and Sites inspect and ask about the differences, we will have to explain the progress and damage. The process can only be resumed after COVID-19,” he said.

The number of new COVID-19 cases has declined in Myanmar since Dec. 19 but the number remains around 500 per day.

Since 2014 the culture ministry has carried out digital mapping and worked to better preserve Buddhist temples and palaces at Mrauk-U. In May 2017, the government began the Unesco World Heritage List nomination process.

Mrauk-U was the seat of Arakan’s kings from the 15th century to the late 1800s with the arrival of British imperialist forces. At its height, the empire controlled large parts of today’s Bangladesh, Rakhine State and parts of central Myanmar. Much of the city’s remains are well-preserved and some 380 temples are scattered among the lush hills of northern Rakhine.

Three historic Pyu cities became Myanmar’s first Unesco World Heritage Site in 2014 and Bagan was added in July 21019. Mrauk-U is expected to become the third site.

Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko