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 believe that members of the rebel Arakan Army (AA) have been hiding since the two sides began fighting in the township more than a month ago.
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 archaeological zone.
The letter mentioned that government troops placed artillery launchers on Sat Yone Mountain, in the Nga Pi Thel Ma and Nate Bu Zar Pagoda hills, in Amyint Taung fortress, on Shwe Taung and Yadanar Mann Aung Pagoda hills, and on other mountains where the Ye Hla Nga-Mann walls are located. It also said that the soldiers fired shells from these locations nearly every day.
The letter also asserted that some security forces stationed in the area dug up trenches and used 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 is in plain sight. All the residents of Mrauk-U can see where they are placing the huge guns.”
Township archaeologists believe there could be damage to 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.”
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 used to hold.
“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, though they already have been informed by engineers 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.
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 the pressure and vibrations from shelling are not that great.
“They are using it as an excuse to blame us,” he said. “This is not a reasonable claim.”
The World Heritage Committee of the United Nations' cultural agency, UNESCO, will meet in late June and early July to decide on whether to grant World Heritage Site status for Myanmar’s ancient town of Bagan, known for its archaeological zone containing more than 2,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas, stupas, and ruins dating from between the 11th and 13th centuries.
About 200 temples and pagodas in the zone were damaged in August 2016 when a 6.8-magnitude earthquake struck near the town of Chauk, about 30 kilometers (19 miles) south of Bagan in central Myanmar’s Magway region.
‘All are in plain sight’
Mrauk-U archaeologists and residents say the clashes in their township have become an obstacle to efforts to have their archaeological 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.”
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.”
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.
Reported by Min Thein Aung and Htet Arkar for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.