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Mrauk U: tensions, protests and its bid for UNESCO protection

Bell-shaped temples and stupas peeking out of the morning dew are the images proffered by travel agencies advertising trips to the historical site of Mrauk-U in western Rakhine State.

But what the brochures don’t tell you about Mrauk-U is the giant helicopter pads smack dab in the middle of the archaeological wonder.

And it’s not just one helipad, but three.

“One for the general and two for his bodyguards,” recounts local historian Kyaw Hla Maung. He continues shaking his head: “The helipads are no good because this is the middle of a historical zone and the reverberations are not good for the buildings.”

The helipads are just the tip of the iceberg. Other questionable restoration techniques used under previous military governments include using cement to re-enforce traditional stone structures. And one of the biggest tasks in Mrauk-U’s bid for UNESCO heritage listing is the lack of a comprehensive mapping of the region, which also remains largely unexcavated.

 

Mrauk-U Department of Archaeology Director Nyein Lwin explains some of the challenges with the terrain. “Bagan,” he said, referring to Burma’s best-known archeological site, “has flat land and the pagodas are easier for everybody to get around, but in Mrauk-U, all the ruins are on hills.”

A full inventory of the site is still in the draft phase.

“We don’t have the number of how many buildings; only a record of the number of sites that have been excavated, but no report. So this is a big challenge,” admits Nyein Lwin.

 

A view of Htukkanthein temple, one of Mrauk U’s most famous buildings. (Photo: Libby Hogan / DVB)

Over 500 structures built from the 15th to 18th century were recorded in the last survey database published in December of last year. An 11-member team made of officers from the Department of Archaeology, international restoring experts and archaeologists, has been putting together a map and photographing monuments and other archaeological features since 2005.

While this team has been making progress, a bigger problem has arisen.

Rakhine conflict’s ripple effects

The number of tourists visiting Burma has dropped by 11 percent, chairman of the Union of Myanmar Travel Association, U Thet Lwin Toe, told the government-run Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper last October.

A drop in searches and bookings on the travel booking website Go-Myanmar also reveals a downturn in the tourism industry nationally.

“Usually we’d expect a peak around 3,000 to 3,500 searches [per day] at this time of year as tourist season picks up, but we have certainly seen a flattening out of the growth,” says the founder of Go-Myanmar, Marcus Allender.

This is also the time of year that tour agencies usually start to book for next year, but so far Allender says bookings have been tepid. Most likely tourists are canceling because of ethical reasons, or perceptions of a lack of safety.

A Buddha statue in Koe-Thaung Pagoda (Photo: Libby Hogan / DVB)

The drop in numbers is a logical consequence of the current situation.

“If a country is perceived as being unsafe, or committing acts of ethnic cleansing, then it is not going to be a very popular tourism destination. Peace and stability are the prerequisites for tourism,” explains Andrea Valentin, founder of Tourism Transparency, a group focused on the development of responsible tourism across the country.

The owner of the 30-bed Mrauk-U Princess Resort, Yin Myo Su, has reported that her business is only running at about 7 percent capacity. Over a long conversation in December, Yin Myo Su described how challenging the situation is: “It’s not only bad for one business but for guides, entrance fees, artisans, flight agents — you name it. When one person goes there is a number of stakeholders who benefit.”

The violence that erupted on 25 August of last year — causing more than 600,000 Rohingya Muslims, to flee to Bangladesh — has also left a mark on the remaining local population. Inter-communal tensions have remained high since the August attacks.

To add to that, on 16 January police opened fire on a protest as locals in Mrauk-U gathered to protest against the arrest of a local Arakanese writer and the authorities’ decision to ban a commemoration marking the Arakan dynasty.

Seven people were reported dead and 12 protesters were severely wounded by police gunfire.

This only adds to the already volatile situation in Arakan State.

Yin Myo Su told DVB she is extremely saddened by the recent bloodshed and violence that has erupted in the north of Rakhine State, but she is also focused on looking at sustainable solutions in Mrauk-U.

“It took me many weeks to try to find the right words because you can’t go and promote [tourism] when people are suffering because you feel guilty. … You don’t want to go and promote just to make money, it is not the case. We are trying to promote to say, ‘Please, we need to explain the other side of the story, you can’t just leave behind the other community as well.’”

To illustrate her point, she retold a conversation she had with weavers around Mrauk-U who earn less than $1 per day. “They don’t understand why everyone is talking about the other community [the Rohingya], because they said our life is no better than them as well, but they feel like they are completely the victim, misinterpreted, and they did not do the harm so they feel completely lost.”

Weavers in Mrauk U are struggling to support their families as a drop in tourism means a drop in sales of their woven goods. (Photo: Libby Hogan / DVB)

Tourism boycott: Should tourists visit amid claims of genocide?

The first of two reasons that most likely explain the drop in tourism concerns questions of tourists’ safety. As the Rakhine conflict continues to make headlines in international news, it’s still often unclear to tourists whether the whole country is unsafe to travel in or just certain regions.

Valentin from Tourism Transparency and a group of tourism stakeholders are currently gathering information about restricted areas for tourists and illustrating it on a country map. But the task is not easy.

“This is very complicated because the Ministry of Home Affairs are declaring areas that are not accessible for tourists and not communicating with the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism,” says Valentin.

Despite the disconnect between government ministries, many in the tourism industry realise they need to communicate more clearly if they are to keep the industry alive.

The second cohort of tourists choosing to cancel plans or opt not to visit Burma are those making decisions because of ethical reasons.

A monk takes a selfie in one of the temples. (Photo: Libby Hogan / DVB)In 1995 under the military regime, Aung San Suu Kyi called for a tourism boycott until democratic elections were held. Now, ironically, some are boycotting the country because of her government’s silence on what the United Nations has called a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing” against the Rohingya minority.

So should tourists still visit Burma?

A tourism boycott will only make poor people poorer, Yin Myo Su believes: “The more you isolate a population, the more you are pushing them to become more and more aggressive and extreme. It is not helpful.” 

What makes Burma different to neighbouring countries that also have a poor record in terms of human rights is that Burma has been selectively ‘moralised’ or ‘politicised’, explains Valentin.

“Very few people are aware of politics in Thailand, Laos, Vietnam or Cambodia, but I think because Aung San Suu Kyi was the one who called for the tourism boycott back in the day, people have moralised visiting Burma,” explains Valentin. She continues: “Thailand is a military dictatorship essentially, it is under martial law. Laos is a one party system and then let’s not even start to talk about Hun Sen, words cannot describe what is happening in Cambodia, and yet tourism is very successful. The same in Thailand and Vietnam.”

At this difficult time for the country, Allender also believes that a boycott is not the answer. “The [boycott] idea is very misplaced in the sense that it doesn’t address the issues that people believe they are addressing. If you don’t go — and think that by doing that you think you are helping the Rohingya directly — then I believe that is a mistake because there are wider issues underlying how this all fits together.”

Exposing people to wider perspectives and the exchange of cultural views that tourism brings also shouldn’t be underestimated, adds Allender.

The Department of Archaeology is Mrauk U is currently working on an inventory of the site in its bid for UNESCO world heritage protection. (Photo: Libby Hogan / DVB)

Divining Mrauk-U’s future, for tourism and local communities

“I believe that tourism can initiate reconciliation in Mrauk-U and greater Rakhine State, as the rediscovering of the shared history would in itself be a process of reconciliation,” says Melanie Walker, an education consultant working with the Peace and Development Initiative (PDI), a local youth education and peace-building organisation.

Mrauk-U and the wider Arakan Kingdom was once known as a thriving multi-ethnic and multi-faith dominion. Popular as a trading hub for the likes of Portuguese, Dutch, Armenian, Persian and Arab traders — and due to its close proximity to what was then known as Bengal — Mrauk-U’s rulers also used Muslim influences in their Buddhist architecture and minted coins in both Arabic and Arakanese.

“There has been a denial of shared history, which I believe is contributing to this bunkering-down attitude, because they can’t identify with ‘the other,’” explains Walker. “Moving forward with tourism, for social cohesion in Rakhine, I think needs to consider how to involve those with more uncompromising views.”

Others who spoke to DVB again asserted that in the development of Mrauk-U as a tourist destination, surrounding communities such as those in Sittwe, the Rakhine State capital located 60 kilometres (37 miles) southwest, might also enjoy the trickle-down effect of tourism dollars.

Tourism can be a tool for peace-building in recognising that history is made up of multiple interpretations of the past. There’s the hope that tour guides can play a part in retelling the history of Mrauk-U and encouraging pride in the diversity of the people who have lived in the region. One initiative to tackle the current history void and rediscover the lost history of regions such as Mrauk-U is a new book, “Histories of Burma,” that has been written published in Burmese and English and aims to teach a pluralistic understanding of the past.

“Each of us is like one of the blind people touching part of the elephant — we may have part of the truth, but we don’t have all of it. In my work with Burmese people around history, even that first point has not been accepted by all,” says Rose Metro, one of the authors of the book who hopes it may become a textbook in schools in the future.

Yin Myo Su concludes, “Tourism is not just about providing jobs, but also preserving heritage, which is for entire humanity, not just for Rakhine tribes. If we talk and transmit this to our children, I believe there will be less war and less disputes with the challenges we are facing today.”