Kyaw Zwa Moe: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week, our Dateline discussion will be held in the compound of the Panglong Monument in southern Shan State’s Panglong town where the Panglong Agreement was signed.
Nang Wah Nu, a central executive committee (CEC) member of the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party (SNDP), which is widely known as the White Tiger Party, and Nang Lao Liang Won (Tay Tay), one of the founders of the Shan Women’s Action Network which is better known as SWAN, will join me for discussion.
This week, we’ll discuss the Panglong Monument and the Shwedagon Pagoda replica you can see over there. The replica pagoda is so big compared to the size of the monument, and we’ll discuss if the pagoda was built for religious purposes only, or if it was built with a political purpose—to block the people’s view of the monument. I’m Irrawaddy English editor Kyaw Zwa Moe.
As I’ve said, there is the Panglong Monument, not very tall, there, and the replica of Shwedagon Pagoda over there. As far as I’m concerned, the pagoda was built with the decision made by former Gen. Khin Nyunt and former Snr-Gen Than Shwe of the ex-junta. My question is: our country is a Buddhist majority country. But why did they choose to build that pagoda just in front of that monument which is both historically and politically significant? How do you assess it as an ethnic Shan?
Nang Wah Nu: General Aung San and ethnic leaders had that monument put up after they signed the Panglong Agreement in February 1947. At that time, the monument was inscribed with the words “highland, mainland.” But then later, we found that the inscription had been changed to “mainland, highland,” and we ethnicities were very sad to see that.
Again, the Panglong Monument was the very first step toward the Union. Shan, Kachin, and Chin, and General Aung San representing Lower Burma and the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL) came here. It is such a historic place where ethnicities and the mainland Burmese joined hands to regain independence.
Therefore, most of the people in Shan State were not happy to see the Shwedagon replica erected at such a place. They are fairly irritated by it. Most of them said that the replica pagoda built in front of the Panglong Monument made them feel like the identity of Shan State and provisions in the Panglong Agreement are being concealed.
We heard that the replica pagoda was built by [ex-prime minister] U Khin Nyunt. At that time, many people were asked to contribute their labor in construction. And bazaars were opened in front of the construction site, and sometimes there were gambling tables. So local residents were not happy with it. We Shan people, as well as other local ethnicities here, want the historic monument to be kept as it is.
We have also witnessed how Haw [the residences of Shan saophas] and palm-leaf manuscripts, which belong to our Shan ethnic people, were destroyed. In the case of Kengtung Haw, it was not only destroyed, but the destroyers wrote down their names in front of the Haw. For example, they wrote so-and-so units of so-and-so light infantry battalion had destroyed this. This is bad, both from a political point of view and a nationalist point of view. Personally, I would say they should not have done so.
KZM: There is a popular belief that the successive military regimes since 1962 have abused religion for political purposes and for perpetuation of their power. Sayama Tay Tay, do you think they built the pagoda because they were honestly devout? And if so, do you see anything that can prove their piety? What is your view?
Nang Lao Liang Won: I am a true Buddhist. Our Buddha said that we have to rely on ourselves. We were never taught that we would gain merits only when we build pagodas and stupas. We were only taught that we will reap what we sow, and the future depends on our present actions.
My feeling is that they built the pagoda that blocks the view of the historic monument because they want to erase the history. We Shan people are also Buddhists. We believe in Buddhism, and if we see a pagoda, we pay homage to it. So I honestly believe that they put a pagoda there to divert people’s attention.
KZM: There are many pagodas and stupas across our country, which are peaceful places. But they need to be in the right locations. Panglong is a vast place, and there are many spaces where pagodas can be built. So, I think we should ask why the pagoda was built there.
It is fair to say that this case is not alone. As Ma Nang Wah Nu has said, Haws like the Kengtung Haw were destroyed. And SWAN has also released statements about such things. Ma Nang Wah Nu, how can these things be fixed?
NWN: This case is about a pagoda. So I think the Sangha Maha Nayaka committees in Shan State should take the lead role in complaining to the government, arguing that it is not appropriate to have a pagoda in such a historic place. Because they are in a position to talk to the central government.
If an ordinary citizen asks to move that pagoda, nobody would listen. Nobody would care. There are many land plots at both the entrance and exits of the town. So if possible, the pagoda could be relocated to there, and it would be more appropriate.
As an ethnic person and a member of the Union, I would like to have people come and take a look at the Union Monument immediately, as soon as they see it. And I want them to feel impressed by the unity between our ethnicities and our leaders in their independence struggle, as soon as they see the monument.
So if possible, I would like to request the Sangha Maha Nayaka committees to take the lead in getting the pagoda relocated. The relocation would result in a more active Union Spirit and unity among ethnicities.
KZM: Yes, there are many similar cases of construction of Shwedagon replicas. Sayama Tay Tay, your organization SWAN released a report in 2009, saying that some pagodas were not built for religious purposes, but to diminish the culture of others or to gain influence in a particular place. Have you seen such political actions in the disguise of religion in any other places?
NLLW: They exist everywhere in our Shan State. It seems that there are more such cases [in Shan State compared to other areas]. We have clearly written in our report “Forbidden Glimpses” that those who built the pagodas in significant places are generals. So we assume that they wanted to display their military strength by building pagodas.
Taking a look back at Burma’s history, the practice of building pagodas [in order to show off one’s strength] dates back to the time of [King] Anawrahta [of Burma’s first Empire]. There is [a religious belief] that someone who does the good deeds of building pagodas would have better fortune in his next life.
And I would like to argue about that. I don’t know if Buddha had talked much about the next existence. But I am sure that the Buddha always talked about the present. So, [if the generals were really pious] they should focus more on the mental and physical well-being of their people at the present time. Instead, they have built pagodas.
At that time [back in late 2000s], there was forced relocation. So Shan people could not live in their hometown, and many had to flee to Thailand. So we stated [in our report] that [the generals] had built pagodas intentionally to wield their influence, and to show off their military strength.
KZM: Most ethnicities across Burma have viewed these acts as “Burmanization” [by the previous regimes since 1962]. But now the military regime is over, and the elected government of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) is in office. So do you still witness the cases we have been talking about?
NWN: For the time being, we don’t see pagodas and stupas being built. And [the authorities] ordered the demolition of illegal monasteries which were built on squatted areas. This has caused controversy in Shan State. This was a case related to religion.
Studying the politics of our country, you can see that monks have long been involved in politics. So every government has paid considerable heed to monks.
I believe the new government will try as much as it can [to separate politics and religion]. But we don’t know how much people are willing to cooperate with the government in that regard. Again, studying ethnic armed groups, it seems that they also are still observing the new government.
KZM: Sayama Tay Tay, what would you like to say or what is your recommendation for the government about the abuse of religion for political purposes?
NLLW: It seems that many in our country do not know the essence of Buddhism, despite the fact that they pay homage and say prayers. In other countries—for example in Thailand, which is closest to us—true Buddhism is taught by schools. This is important. This is not inculcating Buddhism, but teaching its basics and essence.
The way how it should be practiced is very important. We should learn this through the life stories of Buddha. And what is important is we also need to learn to respect other religions.
KZM: Thank you for your contributions!