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 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 to 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 township, but camp leaders said only locals have been helping them.
“Only locals are helping these IDPs, and they have received almost nothing from the government,” said Maung Thar Khin, leader of the Shitthaung Monastery IDP camp where more than 250 displaced villagers are living.
Some other IDPs expressed concern about having to live in the midst of ongoing armed conflict.
Mya Thaung Shwe, an IDP at the Shittaung Monastery camp, said, “We had no worries in the past, but we have a lot of anxiety now as we are caught in a war zone.”
“We want peace,” said displaced villager 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.”
‘Staging fake battles’
An uptick in fighting between Myanmar forces and the AA since late 2018 has left several people dead and caused about 20,000 to seek shelter in safe places, according to estimates by relief workers in Rakhine state, though the state government puts the number of IDPs at about 7,800.
Earlier this month, the AA said the Myanmar Army had 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 near Waitharli village on March 17.
Afterwards, Myanmar soldiers nabbed a 63-year-old man named Sein Hla Maung who had some explosives and mine-related equipment in his possession, he said.
Hostilities continue to take place in other Rakhine townships, Win Zaw Oo said.
“Even yesterday, our troops from [Rakhine's capital] Sittwe went to Ponnagyun township [to provide] road security, and about 30 AA troops attacked them near Ponnagyun, and a clash ensued,” he said, adding that Myanmar soldiers used heavy weaponry 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.
Archaeologists decry damage
Not only residents of Mrauk-U, but also archaeologists said they are concerned about the effects of the ongoing hostilities in their ancient township.
Battles between Myanmar and Arakan forces damaged some 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 township'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 Mrauk-U Heritage Trust.
“I am concerned that these irreplaceable archaeological treasures won't be able to survive if there is heavy artillery fire 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 Research Department.
A security tent near the Shittaung Pagoda, an iconic monument among Rakhine’s archaeological 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 in the conflict stop fighting.”
The Myanmar government is preparing to nominate the Mrauk-U archaeological zone 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 archaeologists 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 archaeological sites have dropped markedly since early 2019, and local tourists also have stopped coming since the fighting erupted in Mrauk-U township, local hoteliers said.
“The archaeological sites and ancient monuments are the primary draw for tourism,” said Hla Myint, owner of the Mrauk-U Princess Hotel. “Now the armed conflicts have prevented tourist arrivals.”
Other hotels, guesthouses, and transportation and tourism-related businesses in the region have practically come to a standstill as well, local entrepreneurs said.
“There are some hotels, guesthouses, and transportation companies that all rely 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.
“They are the ones walking with shoes on inside Buddhist temples, though they call themselves Buddhists,” he said. “Some government troops even set up camps 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 the 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.”
Reported by Min Thein Aung and Kyaw Thu for RFA's Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar and Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.