Shake-Up Hits Pagodas’ Administration Committees

By Tin Htet Paing 28 June 2016

RANGOON — The boards of trustees for Burma’s three most famous pagodas—Rangoon’s Shwedagon, Mon State’s Golden Rock and Mandalay’s Mahamuni—will be reformed, according to the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture.

Minister Aung Ko ordered the review of existing regulations of the boards and, if necessary, will require a redrafting in line with democratic policies at the suggestions from the ministry and the office of the Union Attorney-General. Director Myint Zaw Win of the Religious Affairs and Culture Ministry, informed The Irrawaddy of the plan on Tuesday.

“The ministry is responsible for addressing the weaknesses and flaws of the trustee boards [which have been] highlighted by the public,” he said. “Most of the [boards’] regulations have become out of date now.”

“Concerns about donations and sanitary issues are among the most received complaints,” Myint Zaw Win said.

Although the three pagodas are prized by the public, reforming trustee boards was not a usual procedure under the previous government, he added.

The board of trustees for Shwedagon Pagoda held a meeting on Saturday and formed a temporary board with 15 members—six more members were appointed by the Union minister in addition to the current nine—to review regulations, Htun Aung Ngwe of the office for the trustee board told The Irrawaddy.

“The temporary board of trustees is now working on redrafting the regulations and policies so that the new board can be formed in line with appropriate rules,” Htun Aung Ngwe said.

Shwedagon Pagoda is one of the most famous tourist attractions in Burma and has received an average of around 500 million kyats (US$426,000) in entrance fees every month from foreign visitors, according to the Jan-Mar 2016 figures on the pagoda’s official website. The board reportedly employs around 850 staff and has an association with about 70 volunteer groups that assist in the daily maintenance of the pagoda.

Shwedagon’s board of trustees is known to be authoritative and controversial. Its current chairperson, Sein Win Aung—a retired ambassador—served as a member of the religious affairs advisory team in ex-president Thein Sein’s administration. He is also an in-law of Thein Sein and allegedly has close ties with the former military-backed leader.

The trustee board of Golden Rock Pagoda, located in Mon State’s Kyaikto Township, also formed a 15-member temporary board on Monday, which decided to regulate hotels and guesthouses in the pagoda compound area. Only 135 hotel rooms were given permission to be built in the compound by the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism but an extra 106 rooms were found to have been constructed against the rules, the Religious Affairs and Culture Ministry’s Myint Zaw Win said.

No details on the new board for Mandalay’s Mahamuni Pagoda were provided by the Ministry, but Myint Zaw Win told The Irrawaddy that it had already been reformed in the same vein as the other two pagodas.

There are serious public concerns about the transparency and accountability of the trustee boards of the pagodas regarding monetary donations; in early April, there was an open letter from a tour guide to the minister of Religious Affairs and Culture demanding reform of the such boards throughout the country within the government’s the 100-day plan.