Journalism Travel

Being caught up in civil conflict in the Mrauk U ruins in Myanmar

As there has been such a lack of information surrounding the outbreak of conflict around Mrauk U in Myanmar, I wanted to document my own experiences when I visited with my boyfriend on 15th March 2019 when we got caught up in it.

Of all the countries we were visiting on our trip around Asia, Myanmar was the one I did the most research on, educating myself by reading the incredible Everything in Broken by Emma Larkin.

When reading it, I was shocked at a government who denied aid from international agencies after Cyclone Nargis in 2008 that would save the lives of its citizens living in the Irrawaddy Delta during its military dictatorship.

Myanmar is one of the most beautiful and incredible countries that I’ve ever visited, but I was scared to write this article when I was there and we only released my boyfriend’s name when we spoke to the press.

Looking at Htukkanthein Temple in Mrauk U, Myanmar
Looking at Htukkanthein Temple in Mrauk U, Myanmar

I was in Myanmar as a tourist, but while I have worked as a journalist, I put my current job as a writer in my visa form because I wanted to avoid the complications that came with working for a major broadcaster in the past.

We did our due diligence before deciding to go to Mrauk U from Ngapali Beach, and all our research on the FCO website and various forums said that the fighting was at the border so we were fine. What we didn’t know was that there was a separate conflict going on.

The major conflict in the Rakhine state that grabs headlines is the fight between the Rohingya Muslims and the Myanmar army. It gained global headlines in 2017 when 730,000 ethnic Rohingya Muslims were driven into Bangladesh by the Myanmar army in retaliation to insurgent attacks on police. It has got to the point where Bangladesh has refused to take in any more refugees. In Sittwe, the mosque is fenced off and tourists are not allowed to interact with Muslim communities.

After a 24-hour bus journey (which may also explain why so few people visit) we arrived at our hotel where we were warmly welcomed and settled in for our 3 nights here. While we were in bed we heard gunfire and shelling at 10pm at night.

I went on Twitter and Myanmar was trending, it was the day that India announced its strikes on Arakan Army insurgents at the border. The strikes had happened two weeks before but they’d held the information back so we continued to Mrauk U in the dark about it.

We discovered that as well as the separatism between Buddhists and Muslims, there was ethnic conflict between indigenous Buddhist groups. The Arakan Army insurgents have been fighting the Burmese Army (Tatmadaw) in the Rakhine and Kayin States since 2015 and they are well-financed (possibly from the methamphetamine trade in Kachin) heavily armed and gaining power.

At breakfast, nobody told us anything and everything seemed normal. Our bus had spilt petrol all over my bag so I spent the day washing and salvaging the damaged contents of my backpack. Occasionally a pair of socks would fly off the balcony and some kind soul would return them to me. We didn’t hear any more gunshots and we didn’t see anything – it seemed like business as usual in Mrauk U.

On the Sunday we hired bikes from our hotel and decided to explore the ruins. The temples were beautiful and we saw a handful of other foreign tourists and Burmese tourists but it was very quiet. We began with the ruins close to Mrauk U and cycled to the Kothaung temple on the eastern outskirts of the town.

It was now the middle of the day and there were a few people around, we cycled past twenty soldiers stationed on the hill adjacent to Kothaung but they weren’t doing anything. We bought a drink and the stall started packing up, we could hear gunshots and shelling again. We didn’t know if it was live firing or a military exercise.

A motorbike pulled up and picked some men up from next to the stall, one of them said ‘let’s go’ to me and everyone quickly scarpered. I went to find my boyfriend in the temple and we got on our bikes. The soldiers were now in combat positions and the shots were getting nearer.

Kothaung Temple, Mrauk U, Myanmar
Kothaung Temple, Mrauk U, Myanmar

We cycled back to town, got some food and returned the bikes. There were still some tourists around including a tour group and we had our bus to Bagan booked for the next day. Still nobody said anything to us about the conflict, but apparently, this is normal.

A French tourist on our bus told us that staff at his hotel had told him not to go out at night or take any boat trips. Once we got to Bagan, we heard that 8 people had been injured in the centre Mrauk U the day we left and we felt sick.

We decided to release the footage that we’d shot and we spoke to a couple of news agencies including Reuters and AFP who syndicated the story to the newswires.

Caddy’s tweet received a lot of attention in Myanmar and people were grateful that we’d shone a light on a conflict that rarely receives any headlines in a country where ethnic tensions are unfortunately rife.

On a personal level, I was terrified of the repercussions of speaking to the press, and the British Embassy in Yangon did nothing to help us after we told them our situation. Foreigners are closely monitored in Myanmar and hotels have to turn over details of tourists staying there, so the authorities know where you are. We’d also been through several checkpoints after we left Mrauk U but we’d been treated well.

From our hotel Nyaung U, we could see a march against Myanmar’s controversial constitution which surprised me, as there have been grave consequences against protests and free speech in the past. I commented as much to a journalist we were speaking to, who told me that two of her journalist friends are in prison and that 7 protestors were shot dead in Mrauk U in 2018.

Things have only got worse in Mrauk U since we were there. On the 10th April 2019, Reuters reported that the government told them a police base in Mrauk U was stormed by ‘200 insurgents’, killing 3 and taking 7 hostages including women and children. The Arakan Army said that they did attack a police base but only six people were injured.

The Myanmar government peddles such misinformation that its impossible to know what is real and what is propaganda. There are so many conflicting reports of who is responsible for attacks – some report the Burmese Army opening fire in Mrauk U, but some people say its the Arakan Army.

Archaeologists have called for a protective no-fire zone around the Mrauk U ruins which have been already been damaged in the conflict. The UNESCO status of what is undoubtedly an impressive historical site hangs in the balance with fighting going on around it.

The sliver of a silver lining to all this is that at least journalists and tourists are coming to Myanmar and that it is no longer so closed off to the world. This fledgling democracy has been described as a ‘false dawn’ and you won’t see conflict in the streets of Yangon, or the beaches of Ngapali but if you dig deeper, it’s there.

The fact that these ongoing ethnic conflicts are growing in force demonstrates the need for true democracy in Myanmar. People deserve to be recognised and they need democracy or the fighting will never end.

If you are travelling in an area that you think may be unsafe, then subscribe to news alerts, and consult your country’s embassy or the FCO website.

Have you experienced civil conflict in areas that are supposed to be safe for tourists? Let me know in the comments below.

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Travel warning: Being caught up in civil conflict in the Mrauk U ruins in Myanmar
Travel warning: Being caught up in civil conflict in the Mrauk U ruins in Myanmar
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