Fighting between Myanmar’s military and ethnic Rakhine rebels in Mrauk U, the 15th-century capital of the Arakan kingdom, has left at least eight residents injured and at least one of the historical monuments damaged by an artillery shell.
The military is engaging the Arakan Army, which claims to represent ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and has killed an estimated 22 police officers since early January.
The resource-rich state is deeply impoverished with none of the wealth reaching its Muslim or Buddhist communities.
During a January visit to Mrauk U, a resident told the Asean Economist that he was an active member of the Arakan Army.
Over the weekend the Rakhine conflict reached Mrauk U, renowned for its striking temples and popular with travellers prepared to endure the 22-hour bus journey from Yangon or fly via the Rakhine capital, Sittwe.
Aung Than Tun, chairman of Garuna Hlaing Blood Donors Association in Mrauk U, said two men from a village, who were wounded last week during fighting, had died.
A UK tourist tweeted a video during gunfire and explosions outside a temple he was exploring with his fiancé.
Christophe Caddy said they came out of the structure to find the vendors and security had disappeared.
As the couple cycled back to their hotel, they said they saw soldiers in “combat positions behind the ruins” of a pagoda.
A member of hotel staff said the building had been hit on Sunday night. “The windows of our hotel were destroyed in the shooting,” the anonymous source said.
The historic structures have not been inspected for damage as armed groups still surround the town.
Myanmar wants to obtain Unesco World Heritage status for Mrauk U and the Myanmar Archaeology Association said it feared the ongoing clashes might hamper its nomination.
The body issued an emergency appeal for both sides to recognise Mrauk U as a “fire-free zone”.
Myanmar is a signatory to the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, which urges armed groups to avoid targeting or fighting near landmarks.
“Rakhine already has racial problems and Mrauk U is solid historical proof of Rakhine State’s existence,” said archaeologist Ohmar Myo.
The “temple of 80,000 Buddha images” (pictured) and the other structures are enough reason for it to be declared a World Heritage Site, Myanmar has argued.
Mrauk U was due to submit a Unesco application in September but the violence may delay the process, said the Religious Affairs and Culture Ministry.
Knut Ostby, the departing UN humanitarian coordinator in Myanmar, urged all sides to ensure the protection of civilians. “Resolve differences through peaceful means, uphold responsibilities under international humanitarian law and human rights law, including the preservation of cultural heritage sites,” the Norwegian national said.
He called for “effective humanitarian access for populations in need of aid, particularly children, women, the elderly and other affected people”.
Mrauk U’s beautiful temple of 80,000 Buddha images in January. Picture credit: Asean Economist