Guest post: Mrauk U-NESCO-cide or Not?

In this guest post by an Urban Studies major from Yale-NUS College Al Lim, he investigates the implications for inscribing Mrauk U as a heritage site, especially being in the same state as the Rohingya crisis. This is a condensed post of his final paper for the Urban Heritage class taught by Creighton Connolly.

For a tourist thinking about Myanmar, one would typically consider the plethora of stupas dotting Bagan’s landscape, or perhaps, the enormous Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. However, the next site to be on the list is slated to be Mrauk U in Rakhine State. This is the state where the Rohingya crisis is occurring, which the UN has called ethnic cleansing. The Rohingya issue is a migration and humanitarian crisis happening in Southeast Asia. Evidence of the persecuted minority fleeing the country through land routes to Bangladesh, as well as sea routes to other parts of Southeast Asia is undeniable. Current numbers estimate that nearly 700,000 Rohingya people have fled to Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh from Rakhine state in Myanmar.

In Mrauk U’s Koe Thaung Temple (1553), a female statue holds a sign saying “wishing to feed the world” (Courtauld 2013: 238). Nearly 500 years later, the world that the statue wants to feed has changed dramatically. Mrauk U, founded on 20 August 1430, was built on an older city with walls dating from the first-millennium (Stadtner 2015). It was the capital of one of four Arakanese dynasties from the 14th to 18th centuries (Courtauld 2013). Today, hundreds of pagodas and temples remain as part of the heritage landscape. The royal palace from the 16th century forms the inner-city core; it is surrounded by city walls running in a discontinuous fashion, punctuated by natural barriers of mountains and tidal rivers (Courtauld 2013).

Despite the overtly Buddhist built heritage, Mrauk U was a cosmopolitan area during its prime. Especially during the 15th and 17th centuries, Mrauk U was a flourishing regional commercial and cultural center. When King Narameikhla found Mrauk U, he had brought Muslim soldiers from Gaur (capital of the Bengal sultanate), who founded a village nearby (Yegar 1972). Numerous kings even took on Muslim titles from the Bengal sultans initially as a proof of vassalage to the Bengali sultanate, but also to legitimize their status with the increasing numbers of Muslims (Yegar 1972). Augustinian Friar Father Sebastian Manrique even records his attempts to convert Muslim prisoners to Christianity, albeit unsuccessfully (Yegar 1972).

These are a few among the many threads of diverse religions and races woven together across socio-historical narratives. Buddhist, Muslims and Christians interacted in numerous ways in Arakan and its neighboring states. The contemporary animistic nat practices integrated into Buddhist temples (from the 10th century) celebrate brothers of Muslim descent shows the diverse mix of ethnicities in what is now considered “Myanmar.” Thus, I argue that prior to the cementing of national boundaries between Myanmar and Bangladesh, the region had hugely dynamic trade mobilities with Mrauk U as a key nodal point—resisting a stable historical narrative and singular religion/ethnicity pegged to the site.

Figure 1: Landscape of Mrauk U

What does the term ‘heritage’ refer to in the first place? The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has coined the term “Outstanding Universal Value” (OUV), which distills principles that apply universally to heritage sites. What this means is that cultural heritage has inherently similar and universal qualities across sites. Specifically, the site should have “cultural and/or natural significance which is so exceptional as to transcend national boundaries and to be of common importance for present and future generations of all humanity.”

Considering heritage as a process and going beyond UNESCO’s stabilizing universalism, Mrauk U’s landscape does not conform to the stable rendering from a singular narrative, as its socio-political implications sets it up as a site of contestation. When heritage is considered beyond its technoscientific categories, it opens the space to questions of: what is said or unsaid about the past? Which histories are remembered or forgotten? Often, heritage sites and landscapes of memory have been controlled by elites. This results in resistance from dispossessed or marginalized groups that are ignored in the memorialization process (Alderman and Inwood 2016: 193). The visibility of heritage sites creates a space for actors or groups to participate in the debate on space in a highly public and performative manner (Alderman and Inwood 2016: 193). As a result, the heritage site becomes one of contention, which aims to bring greater fairness to the remembering of marginalized groups. This makes sense in the case of Mrauk U, with reference to disenfranchised groups like the Rohingya or even the Rakhine themselves.

The slating of Mrauk U is fraught with contention. Recently, there were protests by hundreds of Mrauk U residents against the government’s ban of celebrating the 233rd anniversary of the Rakhine’s fall. Seven were killed and twelve injured during the police response to protestors. This disrupted the work coordination meeting for the Mrauk U nomination, which brought together the culture minister, the Chinese and Italian ambassadors to Myanmar, Arakanese historians, and members of UNESCO. The final submission to be a World Heritage site to UNESCO is still slated be delivered by January 2019, with the archeology department having formed 14 sub-committees to prepare for this.

From this confrontation, it is clear that the international and state-led authorities are working in tandem with each other, but opposed by local villagers. There is clear contestation between the multiple claimants to the site, where the power relations include the local villagers too. Hence, the landscape of Mrauk U is fraught with shifting power relations that need to be reckoned with, especially in light of its space’s production.

Directly applying concepts of heritage to the context of Mrauk U, I argue that there are two broad implications that that directly affects the Rohingya situation: (1) possible economic and regional revitalization, (2) as well as an instrumentalization of cultural heritage to mitigate or deepen entrenched discrimination. In other words, I spell out how Mrauk U might (or might not) boost the regional economy or act as a landscape of reconciliation.
First, many practitioners believe that Mrauk U’s instatement as a site will help the regional economy. According to former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Mrauk U is the “greatest physical manifestation of Rakhine’s rich history and culture,” and he promoted this effort because it would “eventually serve to boost tourism to Rakhine, and thus help strengthen the state’s economy.” This seems to make logical sense, where the influx of tourists into this area would enable a steady stream of revenue that would boost the regional economy.

However, this seems idealistic because it does not account for present economic realities and the precedent of Pyu’s ancient cities. While inscribed on the world heritage list, there does not seem to be much touristic interest there. According to a tour guide, despite Halin’s world heritage status, he does not think it will attract many tourists as low heaps of brick in farmland do not seem very attractive. What is to say that even with UNESCO’s inscription, Mrauk U may not be as highly prized a destination as originally thought.

This also requires creating enormous amounts of infrastructure to ensure mobility and places that can cater to tourists. If boats are currently the only way to reach Mrauk U, how many more boats would need to cope with the influx of tourists? Further, there would need to be more hotels and accommodations in Mrauk U itself. This calls for huge amounts of infrastructure for water, sanitation and transportation, way more than is currently available. In addition, who will institute these infrastructural developments? With the ongoing political tensions, the idea of a possible economic revitalization seems to be faced with challenges like Pyu’s precedent of low tourist numbers, the need for infrastructure, and the timeline for construction to be created within a fragmented government.

Second, a more productive approach might be cultural reconciliation through heritage to avoid deepening the Rakhine/Rohingya crisis. The landscape contains immense potential for the redrawing of the strict “us versus them” boundaries that exist today. Christopher Carter, the UN’s senior adviser for Rakhine state, comments that even hardline nationalists were welcome to grant Mrauk U as a site for world heritage status seems to be promising. By encouraging cosmopolitan shared histories, this space creates the platform for a possible set of reconciliatory efforts to begin. Pointing out aspects of collective histories enable some basis for a common understanding. In spite of this possibility, the local villagers’ outcry remains unaddressed, with existing tensions between the users of space and what state or UNESCO officials’ efforts have been.

The outcome of these efforts remains to be seen. There is now clear progress towards the instatement of the site on the World Heritage list, however, the implications are not simple. Along the economic axis, there are potential economic benefits that tourism revenue could provide, yet there are challenges with its implementation and timeline. A more productive lens of a reconciliatory landscape to develop a sense of shared heritage could be explored. This involves possibilities of further studies to identify how sites of memory can be used to enable organic processes between communities, which may ameliorate the tense ethnic boundaries.

The narrative is incomplete and that is the nature of space. An important stakeholder within this pluralistic public are the village inhabitants in Mrauk U itself. Beyond the concern for the suppression of Rakhine celebrations, what are their concerns with UNESCO branding the site as a one of “Outstanding Universal Value?” Additionally, can Muslims and cosmopolitan histories be included as part of Mrauk U’s history, or will the exclusionary Buddhist built heritage triumph at the expense of potentials for reconciliation? As the statue in Koe Thaung Temple endeavors to feed the world, what kind of world will it be inhabiting and wishing to feed?

Alderman, D., & Inwood, J. (2016). Landscapes of Memory and Socially Just Futures. In N. Johnson, R. Schein, & J. Winders (Eds.), The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Cultural Geography (pp. 186–197). Singapore: Wiley Blackwell.
Courtauld, C. (2013). Mrauk U (Myouhaung) and the West. In Myanmar: Burma in Style, an Illustrated History and Guide. Hong Kong: Odyssey Books and Maps.
Stadtner, D. (2015). Sacred Sites of Burma. Bangkok, Thailand: River Books.
Yegar, M. (1972). The Muslims of Burma: A Study of a Minority Group. Germany: University of Heidelberg’s South Asia Institute (SAI).

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