Secret Civil Conflict at Myanmar’s Ancient Temples in Rakhine

Sunset over Mrauk U Rakhine Myanmar from the hotel room
Sunset over Mrauk U Rakhine Myanmar from the hotel room. Jen Sizeland photos.

In the Rakhine State, Internet Has Been Cut Off for a Year and People are Dying

By Jennifer Sizeland

While lying on Ngapali Beach in Myanmar during a year-long trip around Asia, I meticulously planned our next move, by visiting forums and blogs about visiting the temples of Myanmar’s Mrauk U.

These incredible relics of an ancient kingdom are unknown to many, even travelers that visit Myanmar have never heard of them, tucked as they are into the west side of the country. They now serve as relics to a forgotten time of grandeur and they would be listed as a UNESCO heritage site were they in any other region in the world.

A Hidden Civil War

The reason that they’re not acknowledged for their insight into world history, is that they’re at the center of a hidden civil conflict in the Rakhine State that nobody knows about. We knew about the Rohingya Muslim genocide as that has made headlines worldwide, but it wasn’t close to Mrauk U and there were no specific travel warnings at the time.

In fact, in the blogs and websites that I did find – including the Lonely Planet, encouraged people to go as its a cheap and undiscovered Southeast Asian destination. In this modern time of travel, there are not many places in this region that aren’t overrun with tourists, especially now that Myanmar has surged in popularity.

After a horrendously long bus journey of nearly 24 hours from Ngapali Beach, we jumped out into the quiet fields and stupas of Mrauk U. Our hotel welcomed us with all the hospitality that we’d come to expect from Myanmar by making us breakfast and letting us into our room early to sleep.

We settled into bed that night after a traditional Rakhine tea leaf salad for tea, and we heard noises that sounded like gunfire. But this was Asia, it could be fireworks or mining or military drills and nobody let on that anything was wrong. In hindsight, therein lies the problem, that everything about the secret wars in Myanmar is censored or unspoken.

closeup templeThe next day we relaxed and I did my washing as the bus had a petrol spill all over my bag so getting the smell out took all day.

When some of my clothes fell off the balcony without my realizing, the staff knocked on my door and returned them with a smile.

Biking in Mrauk U

The next day we hired bikes from the front desk as the temples are too far to walk to, this was lucky as it gave us the means to escape later on.

Mrauk U is surrounded by temples on all sides so we headed to the main area to the north. As we cycled past the Shitthaung temple, I heard something that sounded like distant gunfire, yet everything seemed normal and people were carrying on with their day.

We paid our fee at the desk to get in and enjoyed having the sturdy stone temples – with their endless carved Buddhas adorning every curve – all to ourselves.

The next batch of temples meant leaving town to head East for the Koe-thaung Temple, cycling along a winding road past open fields to get there. I thought I saw a group of tourists admiring one of the stupa-studded hills, which was odd as we’d seen barely anyone all day.

stupas on a hill
Stupas on a hill at Mrauk U, Burma.

Guns and Helmets in the Distance

Blinking and craning my neck to see, I saw their guns and helmets. They were soldiers gathered on the hill, briefly glancing at us as we passed.

This isn’t necessarily uncommon at ancient sites as they are sometimes guarded by the military but it was bizarre that they were all in one place.

We entered Koe-thaung and there were a couple of other tourists there. The temple itself was incredible and I bought us both a drink from the opposite.

The Sound of Gunfire

As we wandered around, the sound of gunfire got closer and we looked up to the hill and the soldiers were in combat position. The drink sellers started leaving so we took it as our cue to go. We had no idea what was happening, so we got food and went back to our hotel.

Again, nobody said anything to us. Thankfully our bus ticket was for the next day and even though we went through several military checkpoints on our way to Bagan, we were met with kindness by officials.

A bus in Bagan, Myanmar.
A bus in Bagan, Myanmar.

Warned Not to Visit Chin Villages

The only other foreigner on our bus was a French man who told us that the staff at his hotel has warned him not to travel to the Chin villages or go out after dark.

It was another long bus journey and we collapsed into bed when we reached Bagan in the early hours. The next morning we ate breakfast late while a protest against the controversial Myanmar 2008 constitution marched past on the main street. Myanmar’s political unrest was becoming impossible to ignore.

I fired up Twitter and discovered that while we’d been on the bus, the Myanmar Army (Tatmadaw) had opened fire in the main street of Mrauk U and injured six people. My partner posted on Twitter with a video of our experience and it went viral in Myanmar.

walking by the temple
The Koe Thaung temple

We were contacted by freelance journalists, Reuters, the Associated Foreign Press, and Amnesty International as reliable information is so hard to come by. We told them everything we knew, and it was syndicated across several news outlets but largely ignored outside of Asia. It even sparked the headline ‘British backpackers caught up in gunfire among Rakhine temples, showcases the art of understatement’ by a Myanmar blogger who’d watched the video.

Arakans vs the Tatmadaw

stone statues
Stone statues inside the Shite-thaung Temple

We discovered that the Arakan Army insurgents have been fighting the Burmese Army (Tatmadaw) in the Rakhine and Kayin States since 2015, yet we’d never heard about it.

I’ve worked as a journalist and I’ve read books about Myanmar and I still didn’t know about it.

In January of the previous year, people protested against a ban on celebrating the anniversary of the fall of the Kingdom of Mrauk U, and seven of them were killed, so conflict in the township is not new by any means.

Meanwhile, the World Court has made a ruling on the Rohingya genocide that the Myanmar government has chosen to ignore.

So many refugees fled to Bangladesh that the country had to start turning them away. Outside of the Rakhine state, the AA and other insurgent groups like the Kachin Independence Army and the National Democratic Alliance Army as well as others still operate in the Kayah, Kayin, and Shan states.

Unreported Civil Conflict in Burma

A monk wanders past the northern temples with faint gunfire in the background
A monk wanders past the northern temples with faint gunfire in the background

The country is a tinderbox of civil conflict that goes unreported as women are raped, villages burnt to the ground, civilians forced into labor, and mass unlawful killings.

It’s impossible to know who’s done what to whom, especially as the internet as Mrauk U has been restricted since June 2019. At over a year, its thought to be the world’s longest internet shutdown, affecting 1 million people in Myanmar’s conflict zones.

Even before COVID, it was closed to foreigners as the government seeks to block coverage on one of its secret ethnic conflicts.

There were calls from archeological groups to protect the temples from fire but these have been ignored. They now stand unvisited, with the sounds of gunfire echoing within their fortress-like walls.

AsAung San Suu Kyi’s Nobel Peace Prize hangs in the balance, the secret conflict in Rakhine state continues undocumented, buried further in the constant drama that a pandemic brings.

Take action by contacting Amnesty International on their Myanmar page.

Human Rights Watch is also involved in Myanmar.

Jen SizelandJen Sizeland is a British writer based in Manchester in the UK. She is currently an assistant producer at BBC. Her travel blog is called Land of Size and it focuses on ethical living and eco-friendly travel.

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