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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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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.”

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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)

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Archaeologists Demand Myanmar’s Army to Remove Heavy Guns From Ancient Rakhine Temple Complex

AA soldiers said it took the seven women and children from the housing quarters with them as they retreated early Wednesday to save them from possibly being killed, though the wife of one police official was shot dead by ethnic forces.

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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. RFA

Archaeologists want Myanmar forces to remove their artillery from a temple complex in a historically significant area of war-torn Rakhine state’s Mrauk-U township, saying that artillery shells fired from inside the zone have damaged ancient monuments.

Residents have reported that national troops have fired artillery from the archaeological zone towards areas where they thought that members of the rebel Arakan Army (AA) are hiding since the two sides began fighting in the township more than a month ago, they said Friday.

Members of the Mrauk-U Archaeological Zone Protection Association sent a letter to Rakhine state Chief Minister Nyi Pu on April 9, objecting to the military’s shelling from the archeological zone.

The letter mentioned that government troops placed artillery launchers on Sat Yone Mountain, Nga Pi Thel Ma hills, Nate Bu Zar pagoda hills, Amyint Taung fortress, Shwe Taung hill, Yadanar Mann Aung pagoda hill and other mountains where the Ye Hla Nga-Mann walls are located, and fired shells almost every day.

The letter also asserted that some security forces stationed in the area dug up trenches and used the stones from ancient monuments as bunkers.

“They have placed the artillery in a row,” said Khin Than, chairwoman of the Mrauk-U Heritage Trust. “Residents from nearby neighborhoods could see they had used stones from monuments to build bunkers. This is not something hidden from view. All are in plain sight. All the residents of Mrauk-U can see where they are placing the huge guns.”

Township archaeologists have concluded that there could be damage to the monuments in the eastern part of Mrauk-U as well, but they cannot visit the area for safety reasons, she added.

Brigadier Colonel Win Zaw Oo of the Myanmar military’s information team denied that government forces placed artillery launchers in the township’s archaeological zone.

“Where are they referring to?” he asked. “We never placed any launchers anywhere. We haven’t placed heavy artillery in any of the places [they] mentioned.”

Kyaw Aye Thein, Rakhine state’s planning and finance minister who oversees the Mrauk-U archaeological zone, said government officials have reported the issue to military commanders on the front line through Colonel Phone Tint, the regional minister for border affairs and security.

“We make all decisions as the Cabinet,” Kyaw Aye Thein said. “When we get the letter, we will make a decision and take action.”

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Archaeologists have yet to conduct assessments on how extensive the damage is but were told that the fractures were caused by vibrations from the shelling, he added. Pixabay

Cracks in ancient temple

Than Htike, director of Mrauk-U’s Archaeological Research Department, told RFA’s Myanmar Service on Friday that archaeologists found that the shelling caused cracks in Ko Thaung Temple, the township’s largest temple whose name means “Shrine of the 90,000 Images of the Buddha,” a reference to the number of Buddha statues the massive 16th-century structure held.

“During field studies conducted by my staff, we found that there was some damage to ancient monuments due to vibrations in the surroundings of the Ko Thaung Temple,” he said.

Archaeologists have yet to conduct assessments on how extensive the damage is but were told that the fractures were caused by vibrations from the shelling, he added.

“We have received the preliminary findings from the engineering team,” he said. “We haven’t done any detailed studies yet.”

Khin Than said she has been working on a report on the cracks in the Ko Thaung Temple.

The military’s information committee said the shelling by its troops was in response to shooting by AA soldiers, who took cover among the ancient temples and pagodas.

But Brigadier General Win Zaw Oo, spokesman for the military’s Western Regional Command which is responsible for Rakhine state, told RFA that claims by archaeologists that shelling by Myanmar forces damaged the ancient monuments are illogical, and he dismissed them as a pretext.

“I would like to ask them why numerous ancient temples in [central Myanmar’s] Bagan still survive despite intense vibrations from two or three passenger planes landing daily in the area,” he said, adding that pressure and vibrations from shelling is not that great.

“They are using it as an excuse to blame us,” he said. “This is not a reasonable claim.”

‘All are in plain sight’

Archaeologists and residents say the clashes have become an obstacle to efforts to have the zone listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2020.

Officials held a meeting on submitting the nomination for the Mrauk-U region to UNESCO on March 28, during which Khin Than said weapons fired by government troops in the archaeological zone produced vibrations of levels five to seven on the Richter scale, used to measure the magnitude of earthquakes.

Vibrations at those levels can damage ancient temples built some 500 years ago, she added.

Hundreds of ancient but well-preserved temples and pagodas that dot the township’s hills are remnants of a powerful ethnic Rakhine coastal kingdom that existed in Mrauk-U from the 15th century to the late 18th century.

The empire ruled over what is now Rakhine state and the Chittagong division of neighboring Bangladesh, before it was taken over by the Burmese following an invasion.

AA releases relatives

In a development related to the fighting in Mrauk-U, the AA on Friday released seven family members of police officers whom the ethnic military abducted earlier this week during a clash with Myanmar forces, AA spokesman Khine Thukha said.

Arakan fighters attacked a police battalion headquarters and residential unit on late Tuesday and early Wednesday, sparking a backlash from government troops who conducted an aerial assault.

AA soldiers said it took the seven women and children from the housing quarters with them as they retreated early Wednesday to save them from possibly being killed, though the wife of one police official was shot dead by ethnic forces.

The family members of the policemen were released at a location near Mrauk-U Hospital, Khine Thukha said, insisting that the AA rescued rather than kidnapped them.

“We were not kidnapping them,” he told RFA. “When our troops were retreating, the Myanmar military was bombing the area with three fighter jets. … The women and children in the building were at risk, so we took them to a place of safety. Afterwards, we released them safely and in dignity.”

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The military’s information committee said the shelling by its troops was in response to shooting by AA soldiers, who took cover among the ancient temples and pagodas. Pixabay

But Major General Tun Tun Nyi from the military’s information team disagreed.

“They attacked the police battalion compound and killed some people,” he said. “They abducted the police’s family members as hostages, and now they are making up these stories as a pretext. They returned the victims because they feel bad about what they had done.”

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RFA as unable to contact the women and children for comment.

Fighting between Myanmar and Arakan forces intensified early this year after the AA carried out deadly attacks on police outposts in Rakhine in its quest for autonomy in Rakhine state. The assault prompted the Myanmar government to brand the AA a terrorist group and order its military to crush it. (RFA)