Mrauk U, once the capital of an ethnic Arakanese kingdom, is presently more of a ruined city than an ancient capital.
The city in Arakan State was founded in the 1430s and remained a bustling commercial center until 1784, with trade to other Asian and European countries. Pagodas and stupas could be found throughout the city and surrounding hills, with religious edifices made of stone and rock.
These days, most of the Buddha images and religious edifices lie in ruins among bushes and vines. Buddha images in the precinct of the famous Shitthaung and Koethaung stupas have been disfigured over years of poor care.
The government says it lacks funds to adequately preserve Mrauk U, but a campaign is gaining steam to save what is left of the historical city.
Aung Kyaw Zan, assistant director of the Mrauk U archeology department at the National Museum and Library, is among those working to preserve the religious edifices. “During a visit to Mrauk U, President U Thein Sein said he would grant 600 million kyats (US$600,000) for preservation works for the 2014-15 year,” he told The Irrawaddy.
Under the former military regime, some religious edifices received what the government
called all-around renovation, but not full restoration. As part of the renovations, plaques with the names of ancient kings, queens and princes were removed from edifices and replaced with plaques honoring generals, including Gen. Than Shwe, the country’s former dictator. Shitthaung Stupa was disfigured by cement when former Gen. Khin Nyunt ordered its renovation.
“In the time of State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), generals came to Mrauk U and ordered the reconstruction of some pagodas and stupas,” said a researcher who is documenting Mrauk U history. “I suggested choosing a different way, since their renovation methods could destroy the religious edifices, but they did not listen.”
Generals were accused of taking Buddha images and artifacts for themselves. In 2011, an ancient Buddha image was discovered and news spread that it was made of pure gold. Government authorities claimed it for Naypyidaw, in the face of protest by thousands of locals. In fact, the image was made of only nine-carat gold. Locals said they appreciated it for its cultural value.
Meanwhile, some locals are trying to preserve badly disfigured Buddha images on their own, but authorities have prohibited them from doing so. “The original aesthetic features may be harmed,” Aung Kyaw Zan said of the government’s decision to ban unofficial renovations.
However, some leaders of the official archeological teams have been accused of lacking specialized knowledge and winning their positions due to connections with the former regime. And although construction of hotels near ancient regions is prohibited, businesspeople are building hotels and restaurants, allegedly thanks to under-the-table agreements with authorities.
The government is also building a railroad through holy places of the Mrauk U, angering the Arakanese people who say the Koethaung Stupa will not be able to bear the vibrations of nearby trains over time and will likely be damaged.
Still, measures are under way to earn the city status as a World Heritage Site. “We plan to apply for Unesco’s recognition in 2016. We’ve made all the preparations for Unesco to inspect the region,” Aung Kyaw Zan said.
Local people say they are particularly worried that Mrauk U may never make the World Heritage List if the stupa is damaged by the railroad.