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December 16, 2019

A Nostalgia for the Banks of the Lemyo River

At the news of the rowdy demonstrations and uncontrollable violence in Sittwe, the capital of the Rakhine State, which occurred in March 2014, I, as a Rakhine national, was on edge. A few days later, when the vice-president and some union ministers together with the Government of Rakhine State dashed off to Rakhine State and acceded promptly to the demands of the demonstrators and the situation returned to normal, I could let out a sigh of relief. I could not help but heartily thank the Union Government and the Government of Rakhine State for their timely control over the almost unbridled situation and restoring peace and law in the rioted areas. I, as a Rakhine as well as a citizen of the Union of Myanmar, have always wanted to hear and see  Rakhine State, part of the Union, ever  safe, peaceful, tranquil, prosperous and developed. As I am saddled with a heavy load of duties and tasks, I, despite being desirous of visiting my native land, cannot do so but am always all ears to its news.
Rakhine State is a very pleasant crescent-moon shaped coastal strip in the westernmost part of Myanmar, hemmed in by the Bay of Bengal to the west and the Rakhine Yoma to the east with the two major rivers – Kalandan River and Lemyo River in its northern part forming their fertile alluvial river-valleys dotted with ancient city-states like Dannavati, Vesali, Lemyo cities and Mrauk-Oo founded by ancient Rakhine kings. In addition to its richness in historical heritage, it is also a land of enormously unexploited natural resources, marine and land, laying in wait for development as well as of diverse ethnic cultures and customs and breath-taking beauties to study and enjoy for foreigners and the ethnic peoples from other parts of Myanmar. .    The Laymyo River rises in the mountainous terrain in southern Chin State and then meanders for 140 miles through the alluvial plains in the northern Rakhine State to the Bay of Bengal with its numerous tributaries. The river is so named after the four cities ( myos) such as Parin, Panca, Khrait and Laungkrat which had been thriving successively in its valley throughout ancient monarchical times. It is also called “Incana Nadi” in Pali meaning ‘The River Yielding Pure Gold’, because it is said to have produced a lot of pure gold in ancient times. As it was along the course of this river that King Culacandara, a powerful Vesali king, went round the kingdom on itinerary and some Mrauk U kings went on military expeditions to Bengal and Hamsavati, it is regarded as a historically important river in Rakhine region. The Laymyo River, with its banks dotted with ancient pagodas, ruined or renovated, and sites of ancient cities built by Rakhine kings and a panorama of paddy fields, groves of betel-nut palms and plantations of seasonal vegetables and a roll of gray, distant mountain ranges in the background, is a beautiful and pleasant river indeed!
Minbya, my native town, lies on the western bank of the upper reach of the Lemyo River, about 40 miles north-east of Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State. I was born there over 40 years ago and brought up there until I was aged eight years. It was then a sleepy and run-down town, with a thickly-forested towering mountain range called “ Kyain Taung” in Rakhine accent ( Mountain  where the Bodhisatta lived when he was reborn as king of parrots) to the west and the raging Lemyo River to its east, rapidly eroding the bank where the town is situated and forming new islands in the middle of the river with the sediments deposited and earth eroded.
My house was then in a quarter called “Pyidawtha”( meaning “Happay Land” which  was coined by U Nu for his land allocation program) on the outskirts of the town. My paternal grandparents lived together with us. On some Uposatha(sabbath) days during the vassa(rains-retreat), I accompanied my grandmother to a monastery at the foot of Kyain-Taung, whose presiding Sayadaw was said to be a friend of my father’s. While the Sayadaw was administering the Eight Precepts (Uposatha Sila) to the sabbath-keepers, I ,as a child, used to go about in the precincts together with other children. There was an ancient pagoda stump at the back of the monastery with a plum tree nearby. We plucked plums with a length of bamboo and ate them with great relish. At the lunch -time, we partook of meal with dried fish mingled with potato in thick oil and Thanet-thoke, a Rakhine traditional dish, a salad containing concomitants such as boiled babana-buds and long-bean, water-cress, sesame, ground-nut, fried chilli, etc in thin oil. In the afternoon, the Sayadaw sometimes called me to the store-room and gave me bananas, sweets and other snacks lay people had donated to him and asked me to work hard at my studies. On a few Sundays especially in winter and summer, my mother took my elder brothers, elder sister and me to the top of the Kyain Taung on pilgrimage, taking lunch-boxes and other eatables, as if going on a picnic. We had to climb the mountain along the foot-path zigzagging around the side of the mountain. On the both sides of the path were sometimes seen Inkyin trees(Sala trees) covered with white flowers, sometimes Danyin (Pitheecellobiumlobatum), mango, jack-fruit  and Mayin(Bouea burmanica) trees laden with fruits. The top of the mountain was packed with many religious structures such as pagodas, white-washed and gold-gilded, rest-houses, monasteries, ordination-halls(sima), pavilions surmounted with tiered roofs housing Buddha images of various styles-  seated, standing and reclining. Upon reaching the top of the mountain, we first paid homage to the large reclining Buddha image in the style of entering into the Mahaparinabbana right in front of the Kyain Taung Pagoda. We then went round the religious edifices. What attracted my attention most were statues depicting the Ten Major Birth-stories of the Buddha(Maha Jataka). When it came to the lunch-time, we grouped together and had lunch in a stretch of brick-floor topping a large rocky spur jutting out, from which we could have  a bird-eye’s view of a vast flat, fertile alluvial plain below extending as far south as the eyes could reach. We could see the Lemyo River winding with its tributaries through this plain covered with rice fields in the chequered patterns.
The majority of the inhabitants of Minbya were the Rakhines while the minority included the Bahmars, the Chins, the Mros, the Thets and the Bengalis. Especially, most Khamis, Thets, Mros and Bengalis lived at villages in the neighbourhood of Minbya. They cultivated vegetables, bred live-stocks, fished in the creeks and lakes and hunted in the forests nearby. They transported their local products like seasonal fruits, vegetables, fermented nipa milk, molasses liquid, fishes, meat, fowl, hand-made wares, etc to Minbya Myoma Market by water and land routes. So the market was a swarm of multi-ethnic national races. Most of the Bengalis were menial workers such as coolies, water-carriers, milk-sellers, barbers, etc. It is noticed that due to the faithfulness and workaholic nature, some Rakhine wealthy business-men employed some Bengalis as their confidantes. The Bengalis, the Mros, the Khamis and the Thets lived on harmonious and intimate terms with the Rakhines. Some of my play-mates and class-mates were Bengali boys. We learnt and played amicably and harmoniously. Thus could we  then establish a peaceful, harmonious multi-ethnic society.
However, a murder of a young Buddhist girl by a Bengali occurred near Kyauknimaw Village in Rambye Island in May 2012. It sparked off a quarrel between Local Rakhines and some Bengalis living in the neighbourhood.  But some people with ill-intentions added fuel to the flame by spreading rumours and baseless news to sow discords among the peoples of different beliefs in the society, having recourse to the internet, mobile phones and other highly efficient communication devices. At the instigation of these subversive people, peoples of different beliefs launched violent assaults and retaliatory attacks on each other, making the society unstable. The unrest took on a religious conflict and spread to the whole Rakhine State like wild fire in no time, affecting the peaceful and harmonious society which sustained for some years. Law and order no longer prevailed. Peace was shattered. But, within a few days, the Union Government, in co-operation with the Rakhine State Government and other local and international non-governmental organizations, could bring the riotous situation under control. Security measures were undertaken urgently. Law and order was restored and peace re-established quickly. Rehabilitation works were carried out promptly. Instigators, infiltrators and conspirators were exposed and charged immediately. Refugee camps were constructed and victims were sent there and provided with food, clothing and health-care services. Authorities concerned and local and international non-governmental organizations visited the camps and encouraged the victims, fulfilling their requirements. World leaders fixed their eyes and ears on the case of conflict-ridden Rakhine State.
Aids from foreign countries, the UN, other international humanitarian organizations, locals from other parts of Myanmar came in incessantly.
However, a rehabilitation measure is, by nature, a long-term one. So Rakhine State is still facing challenges and hurdles in security, social, economic, health, educational, environmental sectors. It is noticed that with the appointment of a new Chief Minister recently, rehabilitation measures and development works have gained more speed. A few days ago, some union ministers paid visits to Rakhine State and met and discussed with local authorities and local populace about construction of high-ways, ports, schools, hospitals and dispensaries, creation of job opportunities, vocational training, construction of housing estates of affordable prices, electricity and water supply, establishment of Ponnagyun Industrial Zone, situation of refugee camps, enforcement of law, management of border-line security and illegal immigration, preservation of cultural and historical heritage, etc. It is also read in a private newspaper that the Union Government granted 6000 lakh kyats to preserve the cultural zones in Mrauk U. They are encouraging news for Rakhine people who are awaiting the share of the nation-wide reform processes being implemented by the Union Government. These development measures would be consolations to them for what they have lost and suffered during the conflict.
In fact, Rakhine State is teeming with natural and human resources which are on tab for exploitation. The sea with innumerable species of fish and other sea animals and an inestimable amount of natural gas and petroleum and other minerals formed and trapped in its underlying sedimentary rock-beds to the west of Rakhine State and lush and luxuriant ever-green forests in the Rakhine Yoma to the east are inexhaustible treasures of Rakhine people. The fertile soil of the flat alluvial plain criss-crossed by the Kaladan River, the Laymyo River and the Mayu River and its uncountable tributaries yields a bountiful supply of various crops and cereals. If these natural resources are to be explored and exploited through the use of high technologies, Rakhine State would no doubt become an economic potential for Myanmar within a few years. Ancient cities like Dannavati, Vesali, Khrait, Laung-krat and Mrauk Oo with a wealth of archaeological  artefacts like Buddha images, stone-inscriptions with Brahmi letters, votive tablets, coins, pottery, beads, images of ogres, celestial beings and others mythical creatures, pagodas, stupas, temples, palace sites, city-walls, moats, ramparts, etc and beautiful sea-beaches Ngapali in Thandwe Township , Kamthaya in Gwa Township and Point in Sittwe Township and small Chaduba islands studded with rocks and greenery coconut-palms and fringed with slivery sands  lining the Rakhine coast are good resources to promote cultural tourism and eco-tourism which can earn lots of foreign exchange annually. It is heard that measures are being implemented to provide the whole Rakhine State with electricity by December 2014 and to establish the Kyauk Pyu and Ponnagyun Industrial Zones soon. If all these ideas and projects could be realized successfully, many job opportunities would emerge in Rakhine State, thereby barring many Rakhine young people from leaving their native land en masse for Yangon and neighbouring countries like Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, etc to be able to look for the greener pasture. If the Yangon-Sittwe High Way is to be upgraded, land-price to be reduced and electricity to be made available twenty four hours a day, many foreign investors would shift their attention to Rakhine State with their eyes glued to its gorgeous resources almost untouched and cheap working forces. Thus would Rakhine State be a thriving region with a high economic prospect.
In those days, Rakhine State, separated by a wide expanse of the sea full of perils on the west and a high thickly-forested mountain range infested with dangerous beasts on the east from the neighbouring regions, remained an isolated region like a forbidden area for many years, having a limited exposure to them. So, no doubt, there would have been misunderstanding and mistrust between the Rakhines and the peoples living in the neighbouring regions like the Bahmars, Bengalis, etc. The superstitious ideas claiming that the Rakhines were aggressive, recalcitrant, retractable, obstinate, and indulgent in drinking alcohol, the Bahmars honey-tongued, ostentatious, flippant but disloyal, etc and the Bengalis rancorous, terrorizing, introvert, parochial and of conspiratorial nature would have been common among them at that time. But these subjective mental attitudes have nothing to do with the defined characteristics of a particular race or religion but they depend only on the individuality of a particular person. Such sort of over-generalization or jumping to conclusion should be shaken off at this age of globalization like today, for this can inhibit the social dealings and international relations. There are many soft-minded Rakhine teetotallers, many straight-forward, candid, faithful Bahmar philanthropists and many sociable, magnanimous, kind-hearted Bengalis. Especially, the Rakhine youths who are to participate in the nation-building endeavours in the future should no longer exercise such iniquitous over-generalization or follow their own hunches in dealing with other peoples but, on the other hand, should make as many contacts with other races as possible and do a lot of reading so that they can broaden the horizons of their general knowledge and keep abreast with those of other races in the international arenas. The other ethnic peoples on their parts should treat the Rakhines with understanding, forgiveness and sympathy.
In conclusion, Rakhine State is now starting to witness development in all sectors.  I on the part of the author suggest that social security, health-care services, access to education, job opportunities, enjoyment of rest and leisure, equal salary, living standard adequate for health and other well-beings, the chance to participation in the preservation of customs, culture, language, literature and historical heritage, enforcement of law, etc should be made available to the peoples of Rakhine State. At the same time, I wish that Rakhine State be a peaceful, harmonious, secure and prosperous community in so short a period. Now I am trying to relieve the heavy load of my responsibilities and duties to the end of my strength. So I think that I can soon set my foot again on the bank of the Laymyo River, my native land from which I have been  30 years apart to enjoy my child-hood memories amongst my child-hood friends.

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