Save Mrauk-U Heritage by Ending the Rakhine War

By The Irrawaddy 25 July 2019

Historians and experts are making efforts to submit a proposal to UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee in order to get the Mrauk-U Cultural Heritage Zone in Rakhine State on the UNESCO World Heritage List this September.

If the proposal is approved, Mrauk-U will become the third UNESCO-listed heritage site in Myanmar. The Pyu Ancient Cities of Halin, Beikthano and Sri Ksetra were recognized as a single World Heritage Site in 2014 and Bagan was listed as another earlier this year.

Like other cities on the UNESCO list, Mrauk-U still houses a great deal of ancient heritage and deserves to be recognized as a World Heritage Site. However, many challenges persist.

The first major challenge is ending the war in Rakhine State. Only when regional peace and the safety of local residents and tourists can be guaranteed can the preservation of cultural heritage and tourism promotion improve. With war, tourism will not progress.

Ceasefires that work in eastern and northern parts of the country should be expanded to Rakhine State. With no ceasefire, the impacts of the war will pose a threat to cultural heritage preservation and the lives of local people.

For instance, after the Arakan Army (AA) raided a police station equipped with heavy artillery near Koe Thaung Temple—the largest in Mrauk-U—the Myanmar military responded with a massive counter offensive using fighter jets and helicopters. Local people were shocked by the explosions, which cultural heritage preservation groups said cracked the walls of the temple.

All Myanmar citizens, politicians and administrative officials in Naypyitaw should be well aware that ancient Mrauk-U, located among the Rakhine Mountains on the eastern bank of the Kalatan River, is a staple of cultural identity that reminds people of past Rakhine independence. Therefore, the issue should not be hastily regarded as a disintegration of the union. The history in which rival city-state kingdoms fought against one another cannot be covered up or forgotten.

Being a cultural identity marker of a distinct ethnic group, Mrauk-U is a historical and cultural heritage site that should be preserved proudly like the Pyu Ancient Cities and Bagan by all citizens of the Union of Myanmar—home to multiple ethnicities and diverse cultures.

There is also a simple historical lesson. City-states like Halin, Beikthano, Sri Ksetra, Bagan and Mrauk-U were built during peaceful times but collapsed due to war. Therefore, all stakeholders should make efforts to end the war. So far 71 civilians have been killed and over 40,000 people have been displaced due to the current fighting between the AA and the Myanmar military—and these are just from early reports.

Only when the war is over will internally displaced persons be able to go back home and tourism be allowed to develop. Mrauk-U is a Myanmar tourist attraction. Myanmar Tourism Marketing, a tourism promotion group, has also recommended Mrauk-U as a tourist destination. However, it still lacks advanced tourism programs and management that benefit local people in the long term.

Sites on UNESCO’s World Heritage List need to have management that meets international standards and budget allocations for systems that help implement these standards, as well as individuals and organizations that take responsibility for implementation. There is an emergency-level need to provide capacity building for law enforcement organizations and awareness-raising campaigns for heritage preservation work.

Thus, Naypyitaw should not control the day-to-day management decisions and policy affairs in regards to the preservation of Mrauk-U and instead allow the local people to more freely participate. Politically, all policy makers have agreed that the federal union must be built to restore peace. One of the characteristics of the federal union is decentralization by delegating authority to regions. Therefore, decentralization in the preservation of the Mrauk-U Heritage Zone is also vital.

When the proposal is submitted to the world heritage committee in September, international experts will come to Mrauk-U to inspect the ancient edifices. Union and state-level authorities must take responsibility for their safety and the AA must also guarantee the safety of those working to make Mrauk-U a World Heritage Site that is safe for tourists.

Will Mrauk-U be revived for peace and the development of Rakhine State?

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