Monday December 16, 2019
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“We Fled From Our Village Because We Are Afraid of Government Soldiers,” Weekend Fighting in Myanmar’s Rakhine Drives 400 Villagers Homeless

“The armed conflicts have affected our efforts for World Heritage Site preservation,” said Than Htike. “They have deterred the management work for the preservation of the heritage monuments.”

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Myanmar, rakhine
Villagers who fled their homes when the Myanmar Army fired into their communities seek refuge in a monastery in Mrauk-U township, western Myanmar's Rakhine state, March 18, 2018. RFA

More than 400 villagers fled their homes in the hills east of volatile Rakhine state’s Mrauk-U township on Sunday when the Myanmar Army fired into their communities amid an increase in the number of government troops in the area, local residents said.

Altogether, 3,000-some people from Mrauk-U have fled to safety from armed conflict between Myanmar soldiers and the Arakan Army (AA), a Buddhist Rakhine army fighting for autonomy in the state, since Feb. 19, 2019. They are staying temporarily in 13 camps in the township, according to locals providing assistance for the displaced residents.

“We fled from our village because we are afraid of government soldiers,” said Win Maung, the head of Maw village who is now living in a displacement camp. “They make arrests and abduct villagers.”

Rakhine state’s Disaster Management Department said it has provided rice, clothing and household goods to internally displaced persons (IDPs) from Mrauk-U, but camp leaders said only locals have been helping them.

“Only locals are helping these IDPs, but they have received almost nothing from the government,” said Maung Thar Khin, leader of the Shitthaung Monastery IDP camp where more than 250 IDP are living.

Some others IDPs expressed concern about having to live in the midst of ongoing armed conflict.

Mya Thaung Shwe, an IDP at the camp, said, “We had no worries in the past, but we have a lot of anxiety now as we are caught in a warzone.”

“We want peace,” said IDP Khin Maung Kyi. “The government hasn’t done anything [about the fighting]. It seems we are going to lose all our belongings and even our lives soon because we have to flee whenever fighting occurs around us.”

army
Afterwards, Myanmar soldiers also nabbed a 63-year-old man named Sein Hla Maung who had some explosives and mine-related equipment, he said. Pixabay

‘Staging fake battles’

An uptick in fighting between Myanmar forces and the AA since late 2018 has left an undetermined number of people dead and has caused about 20,000 to seek shelter in safe places, according to estimates by locals in Rakhine state, though the state government outs the number of IDPs at about 7,800.

Earlier this month, the AA said that the Myanmar Army has sent more than 8,000 troops to northern Rakhine state since the beginning of the year.

AA spokesman Khine Thukha said there has been no fighting between government army and Arakan soldiers in Mrauk-U since March 15, and called Myanmar military reports about clashes untrue.

“There was no fighting involving us in these areas,” he said. “The government army has been staging fake battles. They’ve been firing artillery into residential areas at night.”

Colonel Win Zaw Oo, spokesman of the Myanmar military’s Western Command which is responsible for Rakhine state, also said that no fighting had occurred in Mrauk-U township since mid-month, but added that the AA attacked military security guards with improvised explosive devices on March 17 near Waithali village.

Afterwards, Myanmar soldiers also nabbed a 63-year-old man named Sein Hla Maung who had some explosives and mine-related equipment, he said.

Hostilities continue to take place in other Rakhine townships, Win Zaw Oo said.

“Even yesterday, our troops from Sittwe went to Ponnagyun township for road security and about 30 AA troops attacked them near Ponnagyun, and a clash ensued,” he said, adding that Myanmar soldiers used heavy weaponry in the attack and killed one AA soldier

“Sometimes the AA tries to provoke a clash in towns, and we think that the AA does it intentionally,” he added.

Flood-affected Myanmar villagers eat a meal while taking shelter inside a pagoda in Mrauk-U township, western Myanmar's Rakhine state, Aug. 5, 2015.
Flood-affected Myanmar villagers eat a meal while taking shelter inside a pagoda in Mrauk-U township, western Myanmar’s Rakhine state, Aug. 5, 2015. Credit: AFP (RFA)

Archaeologists decry damage

Not only residents of Mrauk-U, but also archaeologists are concerned about the effects of the ongoing hostilities in their ancient township.

Battles between Myanmar and Arakan forces damaged some of the township archeological heritage buildings and have become an obstacle to efforts to include the monuments on the UNESCO World Heritage list, residents and archaeologists said.

Hundreds of ancient but well-preserved temples and pagodas that dot the area’s hills are remnants of a powerful empire that existed there from the 15th century to the late 18th century.

“The damage inside the archaeological heritage areas caused by the ongoing fighting could be irreparable,” said Khin Than, chairwoman of the group Mrauk-U Heritage Trust.

“I am concerned that these irreplaceable archaeological treasures won’t be able to survive if there is heavy artillery firing and bombing by airstrikes,” she said. “Locals who live inside the archaeological zone also want peace and stability. Nobody wants war.”

The A-Naut-Myae-Htae pagoda was hit by fallen mortar shells during a night of shooting and shelling in Mrauk-U on March 15, said Than Htike, director of Mrauk-U’s Archaeological Department.

A security tent near the Shite-Thaung pagoda, an iconic monument among Rakhine’s archeological sites, was hit by heavy artillery, while bullets fell in the vicinity, which is designated as an archaeological zone, he said.

“These sites are located deep inside the zone,” he said. “It definitely impacts the preservation work. We can only make progress in our efforts in archaeological preservation if both sides of the conflict stop fighting.”

The Myanmar government is preparing to nominate the Mrauk-U archeological zone to be listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in September. The process will be finalized by February 2020.

“The armed conflicts have affected our efforts for World Heritage Site preservation,” said Than Htike. “They have deterred the management work for the preservation of the heritage monuments.”

The archeologists said they are concerned that the cultural and historical heritage monuments might not survive the ongoing fighting.

Tourists stay away

Visits by international tourists to the archeological sites have dropped markedly since early 2019, and local tourists also stopped coming since the fighting erupted in Mrauk-U township, local hoteliers said.

“The archeological sites and ancient monuments are the primary draw for tourism,” said Hla Myint, owner of Mrauk-U Princess Hotel. “Now the armed conflicts have stopped tourist arrivals.”

Other hotels, guesthouses, and transportation and tourism-related business in the region have practically come to a standstill as well, local entrepreneurs said.

“There are some hotels, guesthouses, and transportation companies that all relied on this small number of tourists,” Hla Myint said. “Now they all have come to a halt.”

AA spokesman Khine Thukha accused the government army of damaging ancient monuments and temples in Mrauk-U.

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“They are the ones walking with shoes inside Buddhist temples, though they call themselves Buddhists,” he said. “Some government troops even camp inside the archaeological zone. They are ruining our archaeological heritage.”

But Colonel Win Zaw Oo denied the accusation, blaming AA troops for the damage instead.

“They are fabricating the damage of archaeological sites and artillery firing by us,” he said. “Actually, many trenches have been dug up by AA troops inside the archaeological zone. They are pretty hypocritical.” (RFA)

Next Story

India to Set Up “Border Haats” with Myanmar

The Minister said, The success of the "Border Haats" running along the Bangladesh border in Meghalaya and Tripura has prompted us to go for similar 'haats'

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India, Border Haats, Myanmar
To carry out border trade with Myanmar, the location for the construction of 'Border Haat' has been identified in four places -- Hnahlan, Zote, Vaphai (Saikhumphai) and Sangau (Pangkhua) in southeastern Mizoram. Pixabay

The success of the “Border Haats” with Bangladesh has prompted other northeastern states of India to go for similar arrangements with Myanmar. At the instance of the Mizoram government, the Centre is likely to set up four “Border Haats” (market) along the border with Myanmar to boost local trade and livelihood of the people living there.

“To carry out border trade with Myanmar, the location for the construction of ‘Border Haat’ has been identified in four places — Hnahlan, Zote, Vaphai (Saikhumphai) and Sangau (Pangkhua) in southeastern Mizoram,” Mizoram Commerce and Industries Minister R. Lalthangliana told IANS.

The Minister said, “The success of the “Border Haats” running along the Bangladesh border in Meghalaya and Tripura has prompted us to go for similar ‘haats’ with Mynmar in Mizoram.”

Mizoram Commerce and Industries Department Director J. Hmingthanmawia said that the state government has sent the detailed proposals in this regard to the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) for its approval.

India, Border Haats, Myanmar
The success of the “Border Haats” with Bangladesh has prompted other northeastern states of India to go for similar arrangements with Myanmar. Pixabay

“Once we get the green signal from the MEA, we would seek funds from the Union Industries and Commerce Ministry,” Hmingthanmawia told IANS. He said that officials of the Mizoram government and Myanmar have recently conducted a joint survey and identified the locations to set up the “Border Haats”.

Mizoram Chief Minister Zoramthanga in his Independence Day speech had said that the proposed “Border Haats” would become important trade points between India and Myanmar.

“Land Custom Station (LCS) at Zokhawthar, the lone trade route for Mizoram with South East Asian countries, is being proposed for upgradation. Construction of Trade Facilitation Centre at Tlabung has already been completed.”

“The Indian government has also proposed construction of an Integrated Check Post (ICP) at four places at the border in Mizoram — Marpara, Tuipuibari, Silsuri and Nunsury. The construction of ICP at Kawrpuichhuah is also expected to commence shortly,” the Chief Minister added.

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Mizoram has an unfenced international border of 404 km with Myanmar and 318 km with Bangladesh. The Border Security Force (BSF) has been guarding the Bangladesh border and Assam Rifles personnel are posted on the border with Myanmar.

Experts and various studies suggest that if the “Border Haats” are set up, smuggling of drugs and other commodities would be checked to a large extent. Security expert Manas Paul said that large-scale smuggling of drugs from Myanmar via Mizoram and other neighbouring states has increased in the last few years.

“What is really worrisome is the fact that these synthetic drugs have got a domestic market inside the state, especially among the younger generation. Cross border legal activities including setting up of “Border Haats” could curb the smuggling of drugs and other contraband,” Paul, who has authored books on security and terrorism in the northeast, told IANS.

The CUTS International, a Jaipur based international NGO, with support from the World Bank, had conducted a study in 2016 to understand and examine the effect of “Border Haats” on poverty alleviation and other multiplier effects such as informal trade.

India, Border Haats, Myanmar
At the instance of the Mizoram government, the Centre is likely to set up four “Border Haats” (market) along the border with Myanmar to boost local trade and livelihood of the people living there. Pixabay

CUTS International Executive Director Bipul Chatterjee said that trade will increase income, curb smuggling, and cross-border crimes will also go down.

“‘Border Haats’ have contributed to the border area development, roads have improved, trafficking of women has stopped, unemployment issues have been addressed,” said Chatterjee.

Currently four “Border Haats” are operational in Meghalaya and Tripura. The first “Border Haat” was started on July 23, 2011 at Kalaichar (India)-Kurigram (Bangladesh) in the West Garo Hills of Meghalaya. Three other “haats” followed in Meghalaya and Tripura.

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The Union Industries and Commerce Ministry has been spending on an average Rs 3.5 crore to develop the infrastructure and necessary facilities for each “Border Haat” along the Bangladesh border. The Bangladesh government is not providing any funds for the purpose.  (IANS)