11 June 2017
With a forgotten temple city, Myanmar hopes to strike tourism gold
The next Angkor Wat? Securing world heritage status for historic Mrauk U could bring much-needed prosperity to troubled Rakhine state.
When time began there lived a lonely monkey who met a peacock, who laid an egg from which was born a mighty prince who built a city on the spot of his birth and called it “monkey egg”. Whatever the myths around its creation, by the 15th century, Mrauk U (Monkey Egg) was the capital of a powerful kingdom and one of the richest cities in Asia.
Up to the 18th century, it was a vital trading port for rice, ivory, elephants, tree sap and deer hide, cotton, slaves, horses, spices and textiles from India, Persia and Arabia.
In the centuries since, it crumbled into a backwater town in Myanmar’s troubled Rakhine state. But the city where Christians, Muslims and Buddhists once lived in harmony can still be glimpsed in its hundreds of ruined temples, fortifications and storehouses – mostly ignored for more than 100 years.
Now archaeologists are racing to survey and protect those sites, hoping to secure a spot for Mrauk U on Unesco’s world heritage list, following in the footsteps of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat and the pyramids of Egypt.
Backed by the former UN secretary general Kofi Annan – who said Mrauk U is “arguably the greatest physical manifestation of Rakhine’s rich history and culture” – an international commission released an interim report this year urging Myanmar to nominate the city for world heritage status and since then enthusiasm has grown exponentially. The process will take some years but, along the way, the government is hoping to transform Mrauk U from a forgotten ghost town into a global tourist attraction that draws hundreds of thousands each of visitors a year.
And just maybe, as Annan stated, the efforts will help to solve a brutal ethnic conflict that has divided Rakhine state between nationalist Buddhists and the Rohingya, a group of ethnic Muslims stuck in a refugee limbo in the state. Rights groups claim the Rohingya are the target of an ethnic cleansing campaign that has lasted for years. In recent months, Burmese soldiers have been accused of raping and killing civilians indiscriminately.]
“If such a status was granted, this could eventually serve to boost tourism to Rakhine, and thus help strengthen the state’s economy,” the commission said.
A team led by U Nyein Lwin, director of the National Museum at Mrauk U, is trying to turn that into a reality. But the undertaking is enormously complex. “We need a lot of help,” he said. “Time is very short.”
He and his team need to do rigorous analysis of Mrauk U’s current population and forecast its growth, so that future developments such as new irrigation lines do not interfere with the ruins. Financial assistance has been pledged by Italy, Australia and China, but more outside support is needed, he says.
Local people hope that Mrauk U will become internationally renowned, drawing in much-needed cash to one of the poorest states in Myanmar.
A stronger economy, in turn, may tamp down the simmering tensions some Buddhists feel towards the Rohingya, and remind them of a cosmopolitan history where Buddhists, Muslims and Christians lived in peace.
“What’s important for the international community to know is that Mrauk U is immensely important to the Rakhine from a cultural and historic point of view,” said Christopher Carter, the UN’s senior adviser for Rakhine state. “Kofi Annan’s recommendation of Mrauk U as a candidate for world heritage status was greeted very warmly by even the hardest-line nationalists
From the 15th to 18th centuries, Mrauk U was called “the golden city” by European travellers from the Netherlands and Portugal. Samurai from Japan stood as guards for the king. Many of the larger temples from that golden age remain intact. The Shitthaung temple is said to hold 80,000 stone statues of the Buddha. The nearby Koe Thaung temple is even larger, with 90,000 Buddha images carved into three stories of stone.
U Nyein Lwin and his team are in the midst of creating a registry of all of the ruins that remain in Mrauk U. When finished, they may chart as many as 3,000. But the town is a long way from seeing tourists wandering its streets.
A grand mosque of the 15th century, known as the Santikan mosque, once stood to the north-east of town, in an area now dominated by rice paddies, but many local people have never heard of it and all that remains above ground is a small hill, scattered with stones that may once have been bricks, interspersed with cow dung in the hot sun.
To reach the complex, a traveller needs to take an hour-long flight from Yangon, Myanmar’s economic and cultural capital 750km away, and then spend several hours snaking up the Kaladan river. Only about 4,000 foreign tourists a year make the journey. The temples at Bagan attract 70 times as many. The temples of Angkor Wat, in Cambodia, receive more than two million visitors annually. An airport being built outside Mrauk U will make it more accessible. But it could take years to complete.
Tourism was on the rise in 2010 and 2011, tour guides say. But it dropped off in 2012, when ethnic violence rocked the region. Some aspects of Mrauk U’s history remain captive to modern-day ethnic conflict.
Source: The Guardian. Julian Hattem’s reporting was supported by the International Reporting Project
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