Arakan Army leader Brig-Gen Tun Myat Naing. (Photo: JPaing / The Irrawaddy)
Arakan Army leader Brig-Gen Tun Myat Naing. (Photo: JPaing / The Irrawaddy)
Founded in 2009 in northern Kachin State, far from their homeland, the Arakan Army (AA) were trained and supported by the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), and joined the KIA and the Myanmar Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), in skirmishes with the Burma Army in the country’s northeast last year.
In March 2015, the first clashes between the AA and the Burma Army were recorded in Arakan State itself. This quickly receded, but clashes resumed in December 2015, acquiring a new intensity and prolonging into the term of the new government. The violence has spread beyond Kyauktaw Township to Buthidaung, Mrauk-U, Rathedaung and Ponnagyun townships of central and northern Arakan State. More than 1,700 local residents have been displaced this year by the fighting.
Although lawmakers of the Arakan National Party (ANP), the dominant ethnic party in the state, have called for the AA’s involvement in Burma’s peace process, the Arakanese armed group were excluded from signing the so-called Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement in October last year and remain outside of formal peace negotiations. The Burma Army publicly vowed to “eliminate” the AA in January.
Amid escalating clashes, Arakanese lawmakers last week urged the government to take steps to bring the clashes in Arakan State to an end. Burma’s defence minister responded by calling on the Arakan Army to disarm and accused them of deliberately compromising the new government.
The Irrawaddy interviewed Brig-Gen Tun Myat Naing, the Arakan Army chief, about the causes of the ongoing clashes and prospects for peace in Arakan State.
What is the current situation of the conflict in Arakan State?
It is quite tense, although clashes are currently few and far between. But with lots of troop movement and activity, clashes could recur at any time.
Is it true that the AA has opened fire to provoke fresh clashes?
Yes, we did fire first. But it was not us who acted provocatively. [The Burma Army] came into areas covered by our outposts with military operations commands 5, 15 and 9, together with all the battalions under the Sittwe Regional Operations Command. So, if we had not run into the [Burma Army] column that we did, we would have run into another column. They came in large numbers and we saw them first, because it’s our area.
We heard that a ‘federal army’ backed AA in the fight. Why did they take part and who are the allies of the AA?
We have several allies, among the Kachin, the Ta’ang [also known as Palaung] and the Karen, including the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA). We enjoy cooperation across multiple regions. I don’t want to comment on which exact groups are backing us. Mainly, it is the AA’s operation [in Arakan State].
Clashes have grown intense recently in Arakan State. What is the military objective of the AA?
Our military objective is to perform the duties of a regular army—to protect the security of Arakan State and the Arakan people. Our military objective is that there must be an Arakan Army in Arakan State. We will fight like other armies. We will rise against slavery.
Do you think the hopes of the Arakan people are the same as those of the AA?
I absolutely believe that. That is why we have gained the support of the Arakan people and are able to join hands with them. For seven years now we have tried to realize [our hopes]. Our ancestors had tried before us. This is our historic duty and it is the path the Arakan people have to walk. Our hopes are the same [as theirs]. We are fulfilling the needs of the [Arakan] people, standing by them. We don’t look to our own interests but to those of our people.
Thousands of Arakanese people have been displaced by recent clashes. How are relations between the AA and the people in light of this?
No matter how much they have suffered, the Arakan people embrace, support and welcome the Arakan Army. This is a daily sight. The bad consequences of war are unavoidable. There will be displaced persons and civil society organizations have to take care of them to the best of their ability.
The United League of Arakan [ULA], our political wing, records problems faced by victims of the war, including human rights violations and extrajudicial killings in conflict zones. We will take action in cooperation with international organizations.
You said the Arakan people support the AA. Have the AA actively mobilized people to gain their support?
We don’t need to waste our time and effort [in this way]. The entire Arakan people support us because they have been denied their fundamental rights over decades. We work in line with the needs and desires of the entire Arakan people. A roadmap has been adopted for the Arakan people, which we call the ‘Rakhita Roadmap,’ referring to those who love, value and protect their own race. We will restore our robbed dignity. It is not strange that the Arakan people support the AA while a political solution still cannot be found.
Recently, State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi has talked about holding a ‘Panglong-style’ conference. How would the AA attend the conference? What is the political ambition of the AA?
We welcome all good political efforts, although we have to wait and see before taking proper action. We welcome the people’s government. We had pinned our hopes on it before it came to power, and we are willing to solve political problems together with the government. Our political ambition is that we, the Arakan people, must be able to determine our own future through self-determination.
On May 4, Defense Minister Lt-Gen Sein Win said in the Lower House of Parliament that the AA is acting against democracy. The military also rejected the [parliamentary] proposal to halt the clashes and invite the AA to political dialogue. What happened on May 4 has thrown the hope for a federal union into uncertainty.
Regarding the clashes, [the Burma Army] holds a grudge against us and even said that they would annihilate us. We have to defend ourselves as they conduct military operations.
The people’s representatives put forward the wishes of people in the Parliament to find a solution toward achieving peace, but it was rejected. It is now clear who is ‘warlike.’ Creating war means creating problems for the government. We have no reason to trouble the government, which is seeking a political solution toward building a federal union. Anyone with half a brain can guess which group is creating political trouble.
The defense minister stated that your relatives are now serving in government and urged you to disarm. What do you say to that?
We are fighting because it is necessary for our people. It is nothing to do with who our relatives might be. National concerns and interests are foremost in our beliefs.
[Editor’s Note: The current speaker of the Arakan State legislature, San Kyaw Hla of the ANP, is the father-in-law of Tun Myat Naing.]
The Burma Army and the news agencies they control have called the AA ‘insurgents’ and have not recognized them as an ethnic armed group. Any comment?
The word Tatmadaw is found in the Arakanese dictionary. Tat means fence in the Arakanese language. It is our own word and we haven’t loaned it from anyone. Whatever we are called, we will do what we have to do, in accordance with our political beliefs. We don’t want to argue over terminology.
Have you made any preparations for the peace process to be led by State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi?
I have made preparations, including for the worst outcomes, because I don’t think it will succeed easily. All the ethnic groups have negotiated so many times to find a political solution.
What is your message to displaced persons in Arakan State?
We are trying to fulfill the hopes of the people. They must not be downhearted. I feel very sorry that they have to suffer but it is unavoidable in a war. We will work together with international and ethnic friends to assist them. I am happy that civil society organizations are also trying to help. I think it would be better if more systematic teamwork could be established to protect the rights of those victims.
RANGOON — On April 16, celebrations for the Buddhist New Year’s Water Festival were being held around Arakan State. Music blared throughout towns and villages, and the people ate, drank and merrily splashed water on each other. But for thousands of Arakanese, the festivities were cut short by the sound of gunfire and explosions.
Fighting between the Arakan Army, an ethnic armed organization, and the Burma Army last month engulfed villages in four townships, around 100 miles north of the state capital Sittwe.
Thousands were forced from their homes, and at least 1,500 remain displaced, living in monasteries or other temporary shelters. With more violence breaking out Monday, the displaced people remain reluctant to return home, and a humanitarian crisis is brewing, which activists say is being ignored by international and domestic relief organizations.
Local volunteer groups and civil society organizations (CSO) have been providing food and blankets, but due to poor funding, they are worried that the additional challenges posed by the coming rainy season may stretch their resources to the breaking point.
Wai Hun Aung, a relief worker for the Wunlark Development Foundation, has been visiting the four townships—Rathedaung, Buthidaung, Kyauktaw and Ponnagyun. There he found that some of the displaced people have developed fevers and colds, but his foundation was not allowed to provide any medicine because it had not received approval from the Ministry of Health.
“There are many UN and other international organizations based in Sittwe,” Win Hun Aung said. “But I haven’t seen any support from them going to the internally displaced Arakanese.”
“I am really shocked by their hesitation in providing aid for the victims,” he said.
“The UN distributed non-food items such as sleeping mats, cooking utensils, and hygiene kits” on a visit to Kyauktaw on April 26 and 27, Pierre Peron, communications officer from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told The Irrawaddy in an email.
According to an assessment by Wunlark, there are more than 1,700 internally displaced people due to the recent conflict.
Shelling in the Jungle
According to Arakan Army spokesperson Khine Thu Kha, frequent skirmishes have broken out in the area around Lawrama Peak, a mountain that straddles all four of the affected townships.
The Arakan Army claimed that on April 23 and 24 its snipers killed two soldiers and two officers in an ambush on the Burma Army before pulling back into the jungle.
On May 1 and 2, a Burma Army battalion began shelling forested areas around Lawrama Peak, and military helicopters conducted reconnaissance operations in the area. The Burma Army may reinforce its troops on the frontline with three more battalions, meaning the Arakan Army could be facing more than 3,000 government soldiers, according to Khine Thu Kha.
Kyauktaw residents told The Irrawaddy they heard loud explosions coming from the jungle where the Arakan Army is suspected to have camps.
The Burma Army fired artillery randomly into the deep forest in early May, confirmed Khine Myo Tun, spokesman for the Arakan Liberation Army (ALP), an ethnic armed group that signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement with the previous government, ostensibly ending two decades of fighting with the Burma Army.
The Burma Army last week sought to put blame for the recent conflict on the Arakan Army.
Union Minister for Defense Lt-Gen Sein Win told lawmakers on Wednesday that the Burma Army, known as the Tatmadaw in Burmese, was “safeguarding the country against all internal and external dangers in accordance with Article 339 of the Constitution,” state media reported. The minister painted the Arakan Army as a threat to democracy and instigator of the recent hostilities.
“His claims are the same as the ones the military regime used. It shows they haven’t changed yet,” Khine Thu Kha said. “In contrast, the civilian government consistently emphasizes democracy and a federal union as their top priorities, things the Tatmadaw still neglects.”
Last week, the Union Parliament discussed a proposal to respond to the conflict, but lawmakers opted largely to defer the matter, saying the Arakan Army would be invited to the broader, nationwide peace negotiations expected to be convened by State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi in the next few months.
“The Parliament, which reflects the voices and wishes of people, has neglected the proposal on internal peace and national reconciliation; it has ignored the stance of the United League of Arakan/Arakan Army and the demands on behalf of Arakanese people,” an Arakan Army statement responding to lawmakers’ deliberations read. “The Tatmadaw has threatened us openly in the Parliament and appears to be forcing the entire Arakanese people onto the path of armed revolution while pushing them away from the Union.”
Captives, Casualties and Alliances
Last week in Naypyidaw, military lawmakers told The Irrawaddy the Arakan Army supported the Kachin and Kokang ethnic armed organizations in their fight with the Burma Army, and had launched unprovoked attacks against the Burma Army in Arakan State.
The Arakan Army’s communications officer denied the assertion that they had been attacking Burma Army troops without provocation, and declined to comment on the size and location of the Arakanese group’s forces.
In a recent interview with the Democratic Voice of Burma, Arakan Army leader Tun Myat Naing said Burma Army troops had entered Arakan Army territory, resulting in several minor clashes and villagers fleeing the region.
According to the Arakan leader, one of the group’s soldiers was killed in the April 16 skirmish, nine were wounded and one was seriously injured. He claimed that Arakan Army forces—fighting on their home turf and accustomed to jungle warfare—were able to inflict 60 casualties on the Burma Army.
The Arakan Army head also confirmed the military parliamentarians’ statements about their ethnic alliances. “The AA has had joint operations with the Kachin Independence Army, Ta’ang National Liberation Army, Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army and the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army,” he said. “We have many allies.”
Khine Myo Tun, Arakan Liberation Party (ALP) spokesperson, speculated that Arakan Army forces were deep in the jungle around Lawrama Peak and that the group counted around 200 soldiers within its ranks.
Law of the Jungle
Despite the ALP having signed the ceasefire pact with the previous government, its relationship with the military has grown tense.
On April 24, the ALP issued a statement alleging the Burma Army committed war crimes and violated the Geneva Convention by forcing locals to serve as porters and landmine sweepers.
Arakan States’ minister of Security and Border Affairs, Col. Htein Lin, summoned ALP representative to his office, demanding evidence for the accusations. ALP spokesperson Khine Myo Tun provided 15 audio and video files as evidence, but the ministry’s response was instead to file charges of defamation against him.
“Those files are proof that war crimes were committed,” Khine Myo Tun said.
The ALP has since deployed people to areas where they claim war crimes have been committed to conduct further investigations and gather more evidence.
A villager from one of the areas, U Nga Lone Taung, said he was cut by a broken bottle wielded by a Burma Army soldier, and now he is organizing victims who were forced into labor or physically assaulted by government troops.
The Wunlark Development Foundation has submitted a request for funding to the Arakan State government. But they are not holding out much hope because they have been told that the previous state administration had already spent half of the 2016-17 fiscal year budget.
“I haven’t heard a specified budget earmarked for the internally displaced people,’’ said Wunlark’s Wai Hun Aung.
Min Aung, a National League for Democracy-appointed minister in the Arakan State government, has visited villages and monasteries where the internally displaced are living temporarily. “The villagers are afraid of the fighting,” he said. “They will return to their villages when the gunfire and bombing has stopped.”
There is no plan for relocation yet, but it is expected that the displaced people will be able to eventually return home.
“Their villages were not burned down,” Min Aung said, confirming that a significant portion of the government’s budget had indeed already been spent, although he said it was less than 50 percent.
The Arakan State parliament was expected to take up the issue on Monday.
Htet Naing Zaw contributed reporting from Naypyidaw.
Soldiers from the Arakan Liberation Army are pictured in Arakan State. (Photo: ALP Community / Facebook)
RANGOON — Central executive committee members of the Arakan Liberation Party (ALP), the political wing of the Arakan Liberation Army, were threatened with arrest by Col. Htein Lin, the security and border affairs minister of Arakan State, ALP spokesman Khine Myo Tun said on Thursday.
On Wednesday, Htein Lin summoned ALP representatives for questioning about a statement from the party on April 24. The statement lodged several allegations against the Burma Army, including accusations of the military having committing war crimes, breaking the Geneva Convention and other aspects of international law, removing locals from their land, forced labor and the capturing and sometimes killing of villagers in conflict zones.
It claims members of the ALP could act as witnesses to the alleged abuses.
Khine Myo Tun told The Irrawaddy that Htein Lin and Arakan State’s police chief, Sein Lwin, asked the ALP representatives to provide evidence for their statement because the Burma Army had received criticism from foreign NGOs and governments.
“They told us that if we can’t provide concrete evidence, they’ll arrest us. We replied that we can substantiate this; that’s why we released the statement in the first place. I asked them what they would do if I gave them video footage. Would they take action, without hesitation, to charge the soldiers who’ve committed these crimes? But they said this will take time,” Khine Myo Tun said.
The footage in question is supposedly two files showing murders and more than 20 villagers from various villages being exploited for labor. According to Khine Myo Tun, Htein Lin warned ALP representatives that Friday was their last chance to hand over the footage.
However, a representative of the group said, “We won’t deliver [the clips] silently. We will hold a press conference and distribute them to everyone. And we will invite Htein Lin, the chief minister and government officials to take the footage from the press conference,” though the date for such a conference has yet to be determined.
The Irrawaddy was unable to reach Htein Lin or Nyi Pu, the National League for Democracy (NLD) chief minister for Arakan State, on Thursday for comment, though Htein Lin’s assistant did confirm that the colonel had met with ALP members earlier.
Karen freedom fighters travel to fight alongside the Arakan Army. (Photo: Saw San Aung/Facebook)
After days of traveling from Karen State, Col. Saw San Aung and dozens of troops arrived in Arakan State last week to help the Arakan Army (AA) fight the Burma Army.
The troops are Karen freedom fighters—a Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA) splinter group, and other ethnic armed forces from groups that the Colonel did not specify. He described the fighters as a federal army, formed discreetly by ethnic leaders.
Making pillows of stones and singing to his troops, Col. Saw San Aung attempted to keep morale high for the soldiers he calls “freedom fighters” during the rough trip to western Burma’s Arakan State.
“At times, we did not have food and could not sleep, but this is the life of a rebel,” he said.
The trip was not smooth, as the troops trekked through the jungle from Taungoo to Pegu Yoma to Arakan Yoma, occasionally using cars and boats, but favoring walking through the jungle in order to bring necessary weapons, he added.
“Fighting in Rakhine [Arakan] was a first step for our federal army,” he said.
According to Col. Saw San Aung, whose troops have a history of combat experience in Karen State, joining armed forces in an alliance to fight the military regime was an important and effective strategy.
Fighting recently broke out in Arakan State during the annual water festival, when it was reported that the Burma Army launched a military offensive. Many locals became displaced after the fighting and that was when the Colonel and his troops decided it was time to go and help, he said.
“We should all have equal opportunities for peace. Karen State has peace, but Arakan State does not. This should not happen. We should all have peace together, nationwide peace,” he added.
Karen and Arakan troops have joined forces in the past to attack the Burma Army in Mon State’s Kyaikmayaw Township, and have also trained together in Karen controlled areas.
“Arakan and Karen troops are comrades who dare to die fighting,” he said. “We have a long friendship in revolution against the military regime. They helped the Karen before, so we came back to help them now.”
Arakanese people were happy to see his troops arrive, and local support was important, he said.
He did not give the number of troops, fearing that his enemy would find out. But he said his troops were experienced and were eager to destroy the military regime, alongside the AA.
Col. Saw San Aung believes that the ethnic armed groups will gain equal rights under a federal system through an alliance of armed forces.
“If you want to have a federal union, it’s time to join our ethnic federal army,” he said, adding that he was happy to hear State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi say she was eager to implement a “Panglong-style” peace conference.
The Panglong Conference was held by her father, Gen. Aung San, and leaders from three of the country’s ethnic minority groups prior to Burma’s independence, and is held up as a example of cooperation between the Burman majority and ethnic minority groups.
United League of Arakan (ULA)
20 April 2016
Persecution against ethnic minorities committed by the Burmese military government and its armed forces have continued for more than a half century until the present. The military abuse in remote ethnic areas that remain virtually unknown because of severe restrictions imposed by the Burmese Army. The persecutions have been systematic and widespread, and the forms include extra-judicial killings, torture, and other forms of violence, arbitrary arrests, and detentions.
Burmese Army has subjected civilians to executions, torture, human-shields and rape of ethnic women during the conflicts. The widespread violence, part of a vicious counterinsurgency campaign that amounts to war crimes and crimes against humanity, has contributed to a looming humanitarian crisis, threatening to democracy roadmap and peace in Burma.
Since the outbreak of war in February 2015 in the Rakhine state, it has reported to have been killed, tortured and arrested by the Burmese Army. Most of these casualties are caused by grave violations of human rights that constitute genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. We remain deeply concerned that brutal Burmese armed forces continue to carry out widespread atrocities on a daily basis with impunity, including targeting civilians who are accused of being supporters of the Arakan Army.
We are grave concerned dramatic rise in unchecked violence against civilians in most recent war in April 16, 2016, when the Burmese Army launched an aggressive military campaign against the Arakan Army who has been struggling for self-determination, democracy and national equality and freedom.
In chilling accounts, witnesses and victims described how the armed force forcedly displaced entire villages and destroyed, beatings with the barrel of a gun, executions, gun rape, looting and the burning of their homes. Yet, NLD led civilian government seems to be maintaining a conspiracy of silence around these crimes.
We United League of Arakan (ULA) demand the Burmese government to investigate these abuses by the military force, identify specific unites involved, and takes effective measures to bring those responsible to justice, and immediately cease all attacks, violence, persecution, and all forms of human rights violations against minorities, in particular civilians, conducted by the Burmese armed forces.
We also urge to the United Nations and international governments to condemn the Burmese Army, publicly call on government to investigate crimes in ethnic areas, demand that military officials are held accountable, and make all efforts to restore rule of law, justice until end of war crimes in Burma.
ULA Info Desk
Phone: +86 1570 6924 970
+91 977 495 3234
Narinjara News: Mrauk U, March 6
At least 28 Muslim were arrested by the police on Saturday as they were found digging earth from the Mrauk U archaeological site. Mrauk U archaeology department director general
U Nyein Lwin informed that those people were involved in digging activities, which are prohibited in Mrauk U, an ancient city of Arakan.
“I had issued a strict notice prohibiting any digging activity in those ancient areas but they did not follow my direction. So I went to the location along with other officials and finally ordered to arrest
the offenders,” said U Nyein Lwin.
Mrauk U is a historically important location where lot of fortress is found. Some time back, the Burma Army (LIB.378 battalion) had confiscated the area, but later the battalion shifted to another palace compound.
An Mrauk U elder informed that some individuals from the authority itself were behind the deal to sell the earth to some local businessmen. He expressed dismay that the Mrauk U mountain had already lost half of its earth due to digging activities.
Responding to Narinjara’s queries on how to safeguard the location when some individuals from the authority itself were involved in the illegal business, the Mrauk U Nyein Liwn said, “The judiciary should step in here. The judges should examine the matter and pronounce orders accordingly. We must make everyone accountable for illegal activities irrespective of their religion or community.”
Most of the arrested Muslim settlers are still in under ages. Among them 10 are found matured in their ages and they will be prosecuted under the archaeology laws. However, the underage youths will be
freed with necessary warnings, said U Myint Thaung, the in-charge officer at Mrauk U police station.
“Most of the arrested Muslims hail from Paung Dock village. They were involved with the business of earth-selling for some time in those localities,” he added.
The local residents allege that many ancient buildings of Mrauk U were facing tough time as the authority was not active in preservation initiatives. They however appreciated the new Mrauk U archaeology department director general for his prompt action to arrest the culprits this time.
Budget allocations for restoration work have risen dramatically at the nation’s second most important archeological after Bagan, but there’s little to show for it.
By MRATT KYAW THU | FRONTIER
One of the richest legacies of the Arakan Kingdom that flourished in western Myanmar from 1429 to 1785 is the site of hundreds of temples and pagodas built in and around its capital at Mrauk U, a wealthy trading hub near the Kaladan River.
Thousands of temples were built throughout the kingdom, that ruled over present day Rakhine State and part of Bangladesh, but an inventory by the Department of Archeology and National Museums says there are only about 300 in and around Mrauk U, Myanmar’s second most famous archeological site after Bagan. It is believed there are many more pagodas and temples in the Mrauk U area yet to be excavated.
Since a restoration project began in 2011, the Rakhine and Union governments have allocated large sums to catalogue and restore ancient buildings in Mrauk U. Five years later there is no significant evidence of progress.
Instead, restoration work on two of the ancient capital’s most famous temples, the Shittaung Paya (Eight-thousand Buddha image temple) and the Kothaung Paya (Nine-thousand Buddha image temple) has involved the use of concrete and modern masonry techniques, a situation replicated at many archeological sites at Mrauk U.
“They are not doing maintenance, it’s distortion,” the chair of the Mrauk U Heritage Trust, Daw Khin Than, told Frontier. “The development of Mrauk U archeological zone is, I can say, zero,” she said, criticising the use of concrete to renovate and redecorate sites of archeological significance. “It’s all 2015-style heritage, not the real Mrauk U; I’m so sad.”
The heritage trust was established last year by former archeologists and academics as a non-profit organisation to campaign for restoration techniques that respect a building’s architectural and archeological integrity.
“The Department of Archeology is not watching over and checking what they have done,” said Daw Khin Than. “If they continue like this, it will be fully distorted with new styles and we won’t see our ancient craftsmanship anymore,” she said. “It’s as if the Department of Archaeology and National Museums has the legal right to destroy Mrauk U.”
Development and its consequences
An urban plan for Mrauk U provides for the town’s residential areas and main government buildings to be outside the heritage zone.
The hotel zone is close to one of the town’s most popular attractions, the remains of the former royal palace. More hotels are being built in the town to cater for an increasing number of tourists. The Rakhine State government has continued to issue permits for hotels, despite passing a law last year that ostensibly protects archeological sites in Mrauk U by limiting the number of new buildings and despite a directive from the department ordering an end to new building projects.
“The regional government issues lots of permits to business owners to build hotels,” said U Aung Soe, the secretary of the heritage trust. The department’s office in Mrauk U was unable to do anything about it “and the township authorities are involved,” he said.
A lack of transparency
The maintenance and development of the Mrauk U archeological zone is the responsibility of the Department of Archeology and National Museums, under the Ministry of Culture. A departmental office in the state capital, Sittwe, had regulatory control over the zone, including issuing permits for conservation and other work. Three months ago, responsibility for the zone was transferred to a departmental office in Mrauk U, where a position was created for a new director, U Nyein Lwin.
“Responsibility for Mrauk U is no longer our concern,” U Kyi Khin, the deputy director of the department’s Sittwe office, told Frontier.
All departmental allocations for Mrauk U for the last five years were controlled by the Sittwe office, including projects yet to be completed.
The maintenance budget is allocated by the state government. Figures from the Rakhine State Auditor-General’s Office show the allocation for Mrauk U in 2011-2012 was K84 million (about US$67,800 at current exchange rates).
The state government’s allocation increased nearly eight-fold the following year to K650 million but was reduced to K550 million in 2013-2014.
The allocation for Mrauk U skyrocketed to K6,927 million in 2014-2015, when the Union government allocated K532 to the archeological zone.
Chief Minister U Maung Maung Ohn allocated another K3,000 million to build a national museum in Mrauk U that fiscal year but the department used the funds to redecorate the township’s architecturally-significant court and administrative office.
The state government’s allocation to Mrauk U for 2015-2016 was K6,390 million.
Sources in Mrauk U said hotels and other buildings were erected during the term of Chief Minister U Mya Aung, who was replaced by U Maung Maung Ohn in 2015.
Over five years, the total budget for maintenance at Mrauk U was K15,138 million.
They said there was a lack of transparency in tenders granted by the department’s Sittwe office to Rakhine-based companies for maintenance projects at Mrauk U.
“Those construction companies don’t understand the value of archeological heritage and ancient craftsmanship,” said Daw Khin Than, who said the department also suffered from a shortage of experts. “The department gave contracts to construction companies that know nothing about heritage,” she said, referring to the Sittwe office.
The law requires that projects worth more than K50 million must be open to public tender. There is no evidence that projects at Mrauk U since 2014 that cost more than K100 million were tendered publicly. Since 2014, 12 construction companies have been awarded state government tenders for projects at Mrauk U.
Although U Kyi Khin said the department’s Sittwe office had no responsibility for maintenance work at Mrauk U, the Rakhine Auditor-General, U Tun Aung Zan, said the department had received allocations under the regional budget.
The department is believed to have sub-contracted some construction companies.
“Some cases are very hard to say; some budgets are given to construction companies, and some went to the department,” U Tun Aung Zan said.
Who is responsible?
Although the Rakhine Auditor-General’s Office is responsible for monitoring allocations for conservation and development work at Mrauk U, U Tun Aung Zan told Frontier it had not been provided with complete documentation on how the money was spent.
“We can check the contracts but all the permits and allocation decisions are made at ministerial level,” he said.
Another challenge is frequent changes in senior officials at the Auditor-General’s Office, which disrupts audits of government ministries.
Contracts at the Office of the Auditor General show contractors are liable to be fined if projects are overdue, but no fines have been levied despite work continuing on some of them.
“This is happening because of corruption and a lack of expertise and standardisation,” said Daw Khin Than. “I hope the incoming government will take action over all the corruption at Mrauk U,” she said.
Title photo: Mratt Kyaw Thu / Frontier
MRAUK U, Arakan State — Throughout outgoing President Thein Sein’s term, the Arakan State government spent 1.5 billion kyats (over US$1.2 million) to preserve the remnants of the ancient Arakanese Mrauk U kingdom, according to the state’s annual audit report.
Yet some officials connected with the project allege that it has been fraught with mismanagement. Khin Than, chairperson of Mrauk U-based Heritage Trust, claims that halls within two famous temple complexes—the Ko-thaung and Shite-thaung pagodas—were damaged by government contractors’ negligence. New shrines were built alongside originals, she added—constructed out of concrete and sandstone.
Archaeologists and scholars of Mrauk U, which boasts more than 1,500 documented temples, have advocated for its classification as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but fear that unscrupulous renovation of the ancient locale will put such an achievement further from reach.
‘The Conservation Was Wrong’
Nyein Lwin, director of the Mrauk U Department of Archaeology and Cultural Heritage Conservation, admitted that reconstruction at Mrauk U had been carried out instead of maintenance. This often involves the use of concrete and new stones, rather than brickwork more authentic to the original structures.
Contractors lack experience to properly preserve the temples and pagodas, he explained, clarifying that much of the work was carried out before he stepped into the directorial role three months ago.
“I saw a pagoda… the conservation was wrong—it was reconstructed,” Nyein Lwin said, describing a site within the Shite-thaung complex. “[It] was reconstructed with bricks, sand and stone. It is a 2015 model. It can’t be a Mrauk U model anymore. I can’t feel it [is an original].”
Some original Shite-thaung pagodas had echo chambers and an air circulation system built into the architecture, but after the preservation, both had been disabled.
Arakan State’s Statistical Department Chief Tun Aung San also admitted that local contractors had proven “unskillful” in working on the ancient Mrauk U temples.
Exponential Budget Increase
The deputy director of the Sittwe Department of Archaeology and the National Museum provided The Irrawaddy with an annual report revealing that the regional government budget for Mrauk U maintenance had increased exponentially, from 8.4 million kyats (US$6,800) in 2011 to 639 million kyats (US$515,800) at present.
Over the last five years, a total of 1.5 billion kyats (US$1.2 million) has been poured into the ancient ruins.
Nyein Lwin claims he was kept in the dark about the funds allocated by the state before his tenure. This reportedly topped 665 million kyats (US$536,800) during 2014-15, while the project was managed by the Sittwe Department of Archaeology in the Arakan State capital.
When he became the Mrauk U archaeology department’s director, Nyein Lwin said that he identified discrepancies in the project’s audit report, which led him to file a complaint with the Arakan State chief minister. He noticed that five renovations which had not yet been completed were marked as done, and the local companies responsible had prematurely collected payment for the projects.
Nyein Lwin said he requested that the contractors provide cost estimates for the undertaking and a performance guarantee—which most failed to present.
If a contractor does not complete a project satisfactorily, authorities are supposed to take action, Tun Aung San explained. Yet he declined to say whether the state government follows through on this responsibility, simply adding that they “manage” any problems that arise.
Despite allegations of poor work performance, Tun Aung San revealed that, to his knowledge, the statistical department had not yet scrutinized the 2015-16 budget for the Mrauk U project.
Open or Closed Tender?
According to the official audit list, contractors who were selected to lead the Mrauk U restoration include well-connected Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) members, a Sittwe hotel owner, and construction companies like Nilar Myint Myat, Myanmar Ariyan and Roma Mandaing.
How certain local contractors obtained key positions on the project remains ambiguous. Burmese government protocol states that if a proposal is valued at above five million kyats (US$4,000), a “tender competition” is announced; if a project is appraised at 50 million kyats (US$40,300) or more, the public is informed through state-owned newspapers to facilitate competitive bidding.
The Irrawaddy was unable to clarify whether the Arakan State government had called for an open tender for Mrauk U’s temple maintenance.
“I don’t know whether the tender was open or closed. And even at the Mrauk U branch, we don’t know how many contractors are operating here,” Nyein Lwin said, the latter claim also echoed by the Sittwe Department of Archaeology’s deputy director.
Arakan State’s audit chief told The Irrawaddy that such decisions are left up to regional authorities, and it was unclear if they adhered to a transparent bidding procedure.
“It’s difficult to say whether the majority of tender cases are open or closed. It depends on the state government’s plan,” he said.
When contacted by The Irrawaddy, Moe Hein, a director within the Arakan State government, denied that the state privately handled tenders for such projects.
‘Intentional Violation of Laws’
Further controversy has been courted by state government plans to construct a museum in a colonial era building which was once a Mrauk U palace.
Arakan State authorities have reportedly offered 300 million kyats (US$242,200) to a local businessman to complete the project during the 2016-17 financial year.
The Mrauk U Heritage Trust objects to the project on the grounds that it violates a 1998 law prohibiting both the reconstruction of ancient structures and the construction of new buildings at heritage sites.
“The state government and the Department of Archaeology and Cultural Heritage Conservation are intentionally violating the existing laws. The projects are shared with their close [relations] and after that, our heritage is destroyed,” said Khin Than, chairperson of the Trust.
She lamented that some business contractors had already received official permits to construct guesthouses and hotels nearby.
Nyein Lwin speculated that some government officials might be unaware of laws banning on-site construction, but added that the responsibility to enforce the rules remained with the manager of the project.
“If Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing gave a command to fight, it is the frontline commander, and not Min Aung Hlaing [that has to do it],” said Nyein Lwin, referring to the Burma Army chief. “Whether they win or are defeated depends on the commander’s qualifications.”
“It is the same here,” he concluded, stressing the importance of lower level leaders in Mrauk U’s chain of authority. “The operation manager is key.”
29 February 2016
We solemnly condemn the groundless accusations made by the Thein Sein's government and the Burmese Army's own media and newspapers published in the 29th of February 2016 in which it is said that people who were arrested in connection with the Arakan Army (AA) were involving in the narcotic drugs trafficking.
We will never involve in producing or distributing narcotic drugs which has detrimental impact upon mankind. Nor do we encourage such activities at any rate. We believe that the accusation made by the Thein Sein’s government is only a trumped-up story and a political onslaught against the United League of Arakan (ULA)/ Arakan Army (AA) in order to lose our dignity in the international communities as the Arakan Army achieved the full support of the people.
It is just a childish and undignified manner of the so-called government arresting people in connection with the AA and forcing them to confess as the narcotic drugs distributors by torturing and using ownerless drugs. However the whole world had already learnt the fact that it is only the Burmese Army and its followers who are involving in planting, producing, trading and distributing the narcotic related drugs.
We would like to inform sincerely to all Arakaneses and those who support ULA/AA not to trust the accusations, propaganda and political dirty tricks made by the colonists Thein Sein’s government who are exploiting our natural resources. We solemnly condemn the groundless accusations made by the Thein Sein’s government which has no willingness to solve the political problems systematically. Furthermore, we also would like to inform that we are hoping for the best but preparing for the worst against the eradication plan of the Burmese Army to the Arakan army as they are accelerating their attacks on us.
United League of Arakan(ULA)/ Arakan Army (AA)
To contact: Tel: +66 979 390 581
+86 1570 6924 970
+91 977 495 3234
By THIN LEI WIN / MYANMAR NOW| Friday, February 26, 2016 |
MRAUK U, ARAKAN STATE — The archeological museum chronicling the ancient Arakan kingdom of Mrauk U, one of Burma’s most important cultural sites, is housed in an unassuming, one-story building with a worn-out sign that has letters missing.
Located on the old palace grounds, it has one main room and three side rooms where you can find intricate stone carvings, exquisite bronze Buddhas and beautiful glazed tiles. Some of the art on display dates back to the 8th century, while much stems from 15th and 16th centuries, when the Arakan Kingdom of Mrauk U, located in the north of present-day Arakan State, was at its zenith.
Low-ceilinged, badly lit, devoid of visitors and with the treasures displayed in a seemingly random manner, the state of the museum reflects the state of this ancient city—full of forgotten, magnificent ruins in urgent need of concerted conservation efforts.
I actually didn’t come to the town of Mrauk U on a recent visit to enjoy the sights, but to attend and help moderate an ethnic media conference held here. I also planned to interview Arakanese villagers affected by the December fighting between the rebels of the Arakan Army and the military. The latter plan, however, was scuttled by Burma’s notoriously vague and confusing bureaucracy
To visit the affected villages, I was told, I needed permission from the Arakan State Ministry of Information in Sittwe. But once there, I was informed I needed permission from four other offices, including the Ministry of Border Affairs and Ministry of Immigration and Population, a requirement for which there was no time. In Mrauk U, the township administrator simply suggested I travel back to Sittwe to gain the necessary authorizations.
Determined not to waste my trip, I decided to visit Mrauk U, a legendary but difficult to reach heritage site I had long wanted to visit. What I found was a small, dusty but lively town situated among the crumbling splendor of 15th and 16th century Buddhist temples.
The Buddhist zedis in Mrauk U are dark, its bricks stained with moss as a result of the region’s hot summers and heavy monsoon season. This gives the stupas a more austere, old-world feel, unlike the heavily gilded ones common in Burma. Some no longer have roofs and many have vegetation growing around the temples and Buddha statues, reinforcing the feeling that you are seeing things through a filter, or have been transported to a bygone era.
Inside, they evoke awe, with long, secluded stone passageways decorated with intricately carved figurines and thousands of Buddhas in varying shapes and sizes. There aren’t as many pagodas here as in Bagan, the ancient Buddhist complex in central Burma, where the authorities have evicted villages from the archeological zone to promote tourism and hotel construction by well-connected companies.
Here, the history is exists amid a bustling ethnic Arakanese community, creating a unique sense of a continued and living history. Mrauk U was the capital of the Arakan Kingdom, which fell in 1784 to the Burmese Konbaung Dynasty. At the height of their power, Arakanese kings controlled an area covering parts of eastern Bengal, modern-day Arakan State and western part of lower Burma.
Compared to Bagan, Mrauk U gets a tiny fraction of tourists, partly due to the difficulty of getting there. There are no direct flights and the only way to the site is a three-hour boat ride from Rakhine’s capital Sittwe on the Mrauk U River, or a lengthy car journey. The uncertainty ahead of the November 8 elections deterred many tourists this year too, locals say, while the town suffered its worst floods in 50 years six months ago, damaging local businesses and worsening the dusty, pot-holed roads.
Another deterrent—one that locals don’t like talk about—is the 2012 communal violence in Mrauk U and other northern Arakan townships, which left both Rohingya Muslims and Arakanese Buddhist communities deeply scarred and segregated, and has made international headlines ever since.
Conservation and Restoration, Not Renovation
One of the most famous and impressive sites is the Shite-thaung Temple, meaning “80,000 Images,” built in 1535, where five passageways boast 80,000 Buddha images, statues and carvings.
Despite its beauty, ill-planned renovation to the temple several years ago by local authorities provides a warning of what could occur if construction methods are applied that damage the historic structures. At Shite-thaung stupa, the top was rebuilt using concrete, at odds with the rest of the building material. Not only does it look new and out of place, locals say it is not going to age the same way.
Therein lies the dilemma facing Mrauk U. It sorely needs support and funding to maintain its rich cultural heritage, which is deteriorating rapidly. But if it is to retain its heritage, it is crucially important that ancient structures are conserved and restored, not renovated, as overzealous officials did to many ancient temples in Bagan until they were barely distinguishable from new ones.
In 2014, UNESCO officials began discussions with Burma on Bagan’s listing as a World Heritage site, but efforts were complicated by the former junta’s controversial renovations—once called a ‘Disney-style fantasy’ by UN officials—hotel expansion and forced evictions of villages.
At Mrauk U, archeologists and conservation experts, not bureaucrats and construction companies, should be leading conservation and restoration efforts.
“There’s a plethora of challenges facing conservation of ancient buildings. The city of Mrauk U was once Southeast Asia’s greatest fortified cantonment,” Khin Than, chairperson of the Mrauk U Ancient Cultural Heritage Conservation Group, told Myitmakha News Agency recently.
“Tenders were put out for restorations of areas of Mrauk U, but a great deal of highly valued Rakhine [Arakan] cultural handiworks—found in pagodas, walls and brick walls—were destroyed as those carrying out the restorations were not archaeologists.”
Funding is another major challenge. The same news story said the Arakan State government had allocated 600 million kyats (US$491,000) for conservation for 2015-16 fiscal year to cover the sprawling area with hundreds of temples and other structures.
As we left the archeological museum and palace grounds, we chanced upon a group of men building a wire fence around a pond.
Called “Nan Thar Kan,” or a pond for palace residents, they recently unearthed the square pond using those funds. The work revealed a stone tablet, stone carvings of a deity and an ogre in each corner (as protection, apparently) and a cascade of old bricks leading down into it. What looked like an ordinary pond is now transformed into a beautiful, historic site.
A supervisor there said at least 10 more feet of sand still needed to be removed to completely uncover the pond. When will that happen, I asked? “We don’t know because we don’t know if, or when, we will get more funding,” he said.
This story first appeared on Myanmar Now.