Myanmar Submits Draft of Mrauk-U World Heritage Bid to UNESCO

By Zue Zue 7 October 2019

YANGON—Myanmar’s Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture submitted a draft to UNESCO of its nomination for Mrauk-U to become a World Heritage Site on Sept. 24, amid concerns that ongoing violence in the area could wreck local residents’ hopes for the future of their town.

“If there were peace, I am sure Mrauk-U would be recognized by UNESCO, as our cultural heritage meets the selection criteria but with the fighting, it can’t become a World Heritage Site,” Daw Khin Than, chairwoman of the Mrauk-U Heritage Trust, told The Irrawaddy.

Myanmar is set to submit its final application to UNESCO by Jan. 31, 2020 and experts from the independent International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) will conduct a field visit to Mrauk-U in September 2020.

Daw Khin Than said she wants to see stability restored in Mrauk-U before the visit. Based on the findings of the ICOMOS officials, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee will issue a verdict on the application at the group’s 45th session in 2021.

Since 2014, the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture has carried out digital mapping and worked to better preserve Buddhist temples and palace grounds in Mrauk-U.

In May 2017, the government began its push to nominate Mrauk-U to the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Mrauk-U was the seat of Arakanese kings from the 15th century to the late 1800s. At the height of their power, they controlled an area covering large parts of eastern Bengal, modern-day Rakhine State and the western part of central Myanmar. Much of the city’s remains are well-preserved and some 380 historic temples are scattered between the lush hills of northern Rakhine.

Mrauk-U is located on the Kaladan River in northern Rakhine State, around 60 kilometers inland from the state capital of Sittwe.

Mrauk-U’s image was tarnished in January 2018 when police carried out a crackdown on local residents protesting against a government ban on celebrating the 233rd anniversary of the fall of the Arakan kingdom.

As fighting between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army (AA) has escalated recently, some pagodas have reportedly been damaged.

Before the recent clashes began, the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture documented 1,044 ancient buildings in Mrauk-U but the ongoing fighting and the risk of land mines have halted documentation, said Daw Khin Than.

“There were continuous artillery strikes in the [Mrauk-U] cultural zone,” she said. “The vibrations caused by artillery shells were quite strong. We could feel the vibrations in our homes.”

The heritage trust chairwoman estimated that over 50 ancient buildings located in the northeast and southeast of Mrauk-U may have been damaged inside due to vibrations.

“The ancient buildings must have been damaged by now but as we can’t go in on the ground, we don’t know the extent of the damage,” said Daw Khin Than.

An ancient pagoda and gate were damaged when artillery shells hit the Mrauk-U archaeological zone in March, according to Dr. Than Htike, director of Mrauk-U’s Department of Archaeology, National Museum and Library.

There have been allegations that the Myanmar military has built its battalion headquarters inside the Mrauk-U archaeological zone, but military spokesperson Brigadier-General Zaw Min Tun has denied that this is the case.

On Sept. 23, lawmaker U Hla Thein Aung of Minbya Township voiced concerns that fighting between the Myanmar army, or Tatmadaw, and the AA was damaging pagodas and ancient buildings in Buthidaung and Mrauk-U townships. He urged the Rakhine State Parliament to call on the government to ensure the two sides do not take cover in ancient and religious buildings or residential areas.

U Hla Thein Aung said that both sides have used ancient buildings to quarter troops and as cover during battles, which results in damage to the structural integrity of the buildings. He also said the impacts of the fighting hinder the government’s efforts to have Mrauk-U added to the UNESCO World Heritage List.

AA spokesperson Khaing Thukha said that if the Myanmar government understands the historical and cultural value of the ancient capital, it should restrict fighting in Mrauk-U.

“If the military and the government designate a particular area [in Mrauk-U] as a no-fighting zone and remove all military outposts from the area, we will also avoid the area and we will not shoot in the area,” Khaing Thukha told The Irrawaddy. “We are ready [to cooperate] if a no-fighting zone is designated.”

Brig-Gen Zaw Min Tun said Mrauk-U was peaceful before 2019, despite the presence of Tatmadaw units in the area since 1990.

“We have said that we don’t fire in towns and villages for no reason. The Tatmadaw was established in line with law and it has to comply with rules of engagement,” said Brig-Gen Zaw Min Tun. “We have been here since 1990 and there have been no problems at all. There is a need to look at when the problems started.”

Three ancient Pyu cities became Myanmar’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2014 and Bagan was added the UNESCO list in July.

“I believe Mrauk-U will become a UNESCO World Heritage Site if there is peace and stability,” said Daw Khin Than.

Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko.