Burma’s Lonely ‘Dictator Pagoda’

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 31 January 2014

RANGOON — As one of about a dozen astrologers at the entrance of Maha Wizaya Pagoda, Aung Moe watches to see how many Buddhist pilgrims arrive every day.

“Very few people visit,” says the tarot card reader, who has worked at his booth near the pagoda for the past 15 years.

“I have to admit, Maha Wizaya is a lesser visited pagoda, if you compare it with the pagoda over there,” he adds, referring to Burma’s landmark Shwedagon Pagoda, right across a footbridge and usually teeming with visitors, both locals and foreigners, throughout the day.

In a devout Buddhist country where people are rarely reluctant to visit pagodas, the seeming aversion to Maha Wizaya is unusual.

Ashin Issariya is a Buddhist monk who says he will never make a pilgrimage there.

“I have never visited the Maha Wizaya Pagoda in my life,” says the 53-year-old, who spent more than four years in prison for his active role in the monk-led 2007 Saffron Revolution. “It is a dictator’s pagoda.”

Also known as Ne Win’s pagoda, the gold-leafed structure was built in 1980 by Burma’s former dictator Gen. Ne Win, whose 26-year leadership led the one-time prosperous country to become one of the world’s 10 poorest nations by 1988.

His government announced it would build the pagoda to commemorate the first successful convening of all sects of the Buddhist monastic order. However, locals in Rangoon widely believed the structure was intended to serve as a form of yadaya, or magic that could be used to ward off any bad luck that might be looming upon Ne Win.

“It is built by a tyrant who used Buddhism as a stepping stone to promote his political legitimacy, as if he was supporting the sasana [religion],” the monk says. “It is his evil intention that makes the pagoda unpopular and keeps me away from it.”

In the 1992 book “Totalitarianism in Burma,” Burmese scholar Mya Maung wrote that Ne Win’s pagoda represented “the dark horror of his soul and sins,” and stood “without much reverence or pilgrimage on the part of the Burmese.”

But Thein Myint, a trustee member of Maha Wizaya, rejects the notion that the pagoda is unpopular due to its connection to the former dictator. He says it is less visited because it is overshadowed by Shwedagon.

“It’s nonsense to say people don’t come here just because of the person who built it. It’s superstition,” he says.

He adds that Shwedagon is regarded as the most sacred Buddhist religious site in Burma. “It is thousands of years old, while ours is just 26,” he says.

As a result, Maha Wizaya rarely sees foreign tourists, even though it requires no admission fee. Neighboring Shwedagon, which charges foreign visitors 10,000 kyats ($10) for entrance, received over 400,000 international visitors last year, or more than 1,000 visitors per day, according to the pagoda’s website.

“We never have foreign dignitaries and earn less than $10 per month in donations from occasional foreign visitors,” Thein Myint says. In contrast, Shwedagon received about of $470 in donations per day last month.

Maha Wizaya is not the only pagoda in Rangoon that was built by a former dictator. After Ne Win’s fall from grace in 1988, the new military government also followed suit. In 1994, Snr-Gen Than Shwe of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) ordered the construction of a pagoda to house a replicated Buddha’s tooth relic. The Great Tooth Relic Pagoda, or Swal Daw in Burmese, was completed in 1996.

In 2000 the SPDC also decided to carve a sitting Buddha image out of a single marble stone that had been carried through the Irrawaddy River down to Rangoon. Known as Kyauktaw Gyi Pagoda, it is now the biggest statue carved from stone in Burma.

Unlike Maha Wizaya, these Buddhist sites see many visitors, including foreigners.

“They want to go to Kyauktaw Gyi because they know it is the biggest marble sitting Buddha in the country,” says Thiha Kyaw, a Rangoon-based tour guide from Overseas Adventure Travel, who adds that Swal Daw Pagoda is also popular.

In his more than 10 years as a tour guide, he has never received a request from any tourist to visit Maha Wizaya.

“It’s not internationally famous. When it comes to Burma, the first thing to pop up in their minds is Shwedagon,” he says.

Sein Han, a trustee board member of Swal Daw Pagoda, says the Burmese do not care who built the pagoda; they go to pay homage to the Buddha, not the builder.

“Here people are visiting until 9 pm. We have to ask them to leave because it’s time to close the pagoda.”