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Posted by portugalpress on September 13, 2018
Sittwe town centre has a faded colonial ambience
Shie-Thaung Temple has similarities to Borobodur in Java
The Pikakataik, or library, is a beautifully ornate mini-building
We spent hours browsing Thandwe market’s varied stalls
Ngapali Beach had an elderly resident stork
Ngapali’s fish catches were unloaded to bullock carts

The Rakhine People and Sittwe

Rakhine State, one of the least visited parts of Myanmar, lies on the country’s west coast on the Bay of Bengal, with the Bangladesh border to the north. The ethnicity of the Rakhine, who are often called the Arakanese, is controversial, with their culture heavily influenced by the peoples of eastern India and Bangladesh.

Although most Arakenese are Buddhists, around 20% are Muslims of Bengali descent, and are known as the Rohingyas. Unfortunately, this religious difference has been the source of Rohingya persecution for centuries by Myanmar’s majority Buddhist Burmese population.

Rakhine’s capital is the ancient port town of Sittwe, located where the Kaladan River meets the Bay of Bengal. The Portuguese were the first western mariners to arrive here, then the Dutch and finally the British. During the British era, Sittwe reached its pinnacle of importance when two huge cargo steamers per day were plying trade with Calcutta - even exporting elephants!

Sittwe is a one-and-a-half-hour flight from Yangon and we found it refreshingly cool after the stifling heat and humidity of Myanmar’s capital city. The town centre had a faded colonial ambience and we enjoyed watching boats laden with seafood arrive for auction at the local fish market.

A distinctive ‘Rakhine’ twist on Burmese culture was very evident. The cuisine was fiery and the women’s longyis (sarong-style garments) were in vibrant pink, orange and red. After resting at our modest lodgings – The Noble Hotel – we visited the Buddhistic Museum, which is also a monastery. The displays included Rakhine and Indian Buddha images and some interesting Hindu deities. A joyous carnival atmosphere prevailed in the monastery, as the chief monks were away. With robes unceremoniously tucked up around their waists, the novice monks were playing football!

The Temples of Mrauk U

Early next day, we boarded our chartered boat for a scenic six-hour river journey to Mrauk U, at the head of a Kaladan River tributary, some 65kms from Sittwe. The Mrauk U Kingdom was founded in 1430 and lasted for over 300 years. It was the last royal capital of the Arakanese and, at the peak of its significant power, ruled over much of present-day Bangladesh and Myanmar.

Hundreds of temples and pagodas were built and this whole area is now renowned for its outstanding archaeological remains. Construction of a complex system of moats, canals and lakes even allowed them to flood the area in case of invasion. Today, these mystical centuries-old monuments form an enchanting backdrop to Mrauk U’s rural life.

It would be easy to become mentally and physically exhausted after a day touring around Mrauk U’s historic region, but our guide, an energetic archaeological professor, kept us alert with an endless flow of interesting anecdotes. We visited nine of the best temples, an exquisite library building and two beautiful man-made lakes.

The Shie-Thaung Temple is the most famous, with some similarities to Borobodur in Java, and has spectacular internal passages filled with thousands of Buddha images. It was built in 1535 to celebrate victory over the Bengalis and the evil Portuguese marauders!

Nearby, the bunker-like Htukkanthein Temple is constructed from massive limestone blocks, and has a large central bell-shaped stupa, with a window that allows the sun’s rays to illuminate the principal Buddha image in the main chamber.

The Pitakataik, or library, is a beautifully decorated mini-building and once housed important Buddhist scriptures. Before departing back down the river the following afternoon, we lunched on a spicy fish curry at Moe Cherry’s, Mrauk U’s most renowned restaurant. The proprietor’s youngest daughter proved to be an extremely entertaining little waitress!

Thandwe and Ngapali Beach

Thandwe is a short hop south by air from Sittwe and gives access to a more prosperous part of Rakhine State. The town itself has a high Muslim population, as evidenced by the many mosques, although the surrounding villages are largely Buddhist. Its main attraction is the wonderful central market, housed in a building that was once the jail during the British occupation.

We have spent many happy hours browsing this market’s varied stalls - selling everything from medicinal herbs, to textiles, hardware, exotic fruits and even gold. The gentleman who skillfully repairs clothes using an old Singer sewing machine does a roaring trade!

A short trip by road through rubber plantations and rice paddies brings tourists to the pristine white sands of Ngapali beach, backed by swaying coconut palms and wispy casuarina trees. Ngapali has plenty of good accommodation from laid-back guesthouses to first-class resorts. We’ve stayed here four times and always enjoyed perfect weather, top quality service, delicious meals and the never-ending smiles of the staff.

The nearby sea-fishing villages are an added attraction. The local fishermen and their families share the seashore with the holidaymakers so there is always something to watch – an elderly resident stork, catches arriving and being unloaded into bullock carts, fish and shrimps drying in the sun, children playing and sometimes an impromptu game of beach volleyball. Ngapali beach is a genuine tropical paradise on par with the S.E. Asia’s best.

The Rohingya Muslims

We never personally witnessed any civil unrest or strife during our stay in Sittwe and Mrauk U a few years ago, but tensions between the Bengali-speaking Rohingya Muslims and Burmese Buddhists were already increasing. During the British occupation, today’s entire nation of Myanmar was constituted as the province of Burma within the Indian Empire. 

Separated from the remainder of the empire in 1937, 10 years before Indian independence, Burma province included many sizeable and frustrated non-Burmese ethnic minorities like the Karen, Kachin, Chin and Rohingya. Burma gained its own independence in 1948, and because of the historical chauvinism of the Burmese majority, there has been a state of civil war between the central government and these minorities ever since. It is now quite clear these ethnic groups would have been much better and more peacefully accommodated as separate states in independent India’s structure, leaving just a smaller Buddhist-only Burmese nation.

At least partly due to their religious affiliations, Myanmar’s military government stripped the Rohingyas of their citizenship in 1982, further heightening tensions in Rakhine State.

Last summer, it all boiled over following an attack by a militant Islamic group. Genuinely fearing the beginning of a Rohingya separatist agenda, fuelled by extreme Islam, Myanmar’s Army undertook a brutal crackdown that forced 700,000 peaceful and innocent Rohingyas to flee to Bangladesh. This horrific exodus filled our TV screens with terrible images of human suffering.

Following diplomatic overtures by the UN, a repatriation framework has recently been created. The UN asked that Myanmar ensure no “further excessive use of military force” and to allow “freedom of movement, equal access to basic services, and equal access to full citizenship for all”. Due to this conflict’s long complex history and entrenched views on each side, a peaceful repatriation will be extraordinarily difficult to achieve. All we can do is pray that common sense will eventually prevail and the Rohingyas can progressively make a safe, voluntary and dignified return to their Rakhine homeland.

By Nigel Wright

Nigel Wright and his wife Sue moved to Portugal 13 years ago and live near Guia. They lived and worked in the Far East and Middle East during the 1980s and 90s, and although now retired, still continue to travel and seek out new cultural experiences. His other interests include tennis, gardening and photography.