RANGOON — A conference organized by a new Buddhist advocacy group has demanded the complete shutdown of five controversial development projects near Rangoon’s iconic Shwedagon Pagoda.
Several hundred people attended Wednesday conference, including members of the Burmese Patriotic Monks Union and Theravada Dhamma Network, which was organized by the Society to Protect the Shwedagon.
“We monks and lay people who attended the conference here today demand the relevant authorities guarantee the cancellation of projects near the Shwedagon,” a statement released by the society said. “We will keep moving ahead against the construction of any projects, including Dagon City, near the Shwedagon. If the projects are not shut down, we will stage demonstrations across the country.”
Officially founded last week, seven of the society’s 11 committee members belong to the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, the Buddhist nationalist group also known as Ma Ba Tha. All organizations represented at Wednesday’s conference announced their objection to the five developments, claiming their construction would be a threat to the structural integrity of the pagoda.
Maung Maung, one of the society’s leading members, said that the potential of the projects to damage the nation’s cultural and religious heritage was a very serious issue.
“Frankly, we are just trying prevent the problem,” he told The Irrawaddy. “We want the developers to reassess whether or not what they are doing will be harmful.”
The five developments are spread over 72 acres of land near Shwedagon Pagoda that was leased from the military’s Quartermaster-General’s Office in 2013. All five projects were suspended after the Myanmar Investment Commission ordered a review in late January. In the months since, there have been growing calls to cancel the projects outright from municipal and divisional government figures, members of the Association of Myanmar Architects, the Yangon Heritage Trust and religious figures.
Pho Pyu, a legal advisor from the Purple Equity law firm, told the conference that if the land was no longer actively used by the military, it should have been turned over to the government rather than sold to private developers.
“According to the Defence Services Act, the military’s duty is to protect the country,” he said. “I don’t see any clause that says ‘the military can sell its land to business interests.’”
Critics have speculated that the projects could affect the water table underneath Singuttara Hill and upset the foundations of the pagoda. Marga Landmark, the majority partner in the 22-acre Dagon City 1 development, last month released a statement saying it had reassured authorities that any excavation work would be conducted with “utmost care and due diligence” to avoid any structural damage to Shwedagon.
In a message sent to the conference, firebrand monk and senior Ma Ba Tha figure U Wirathu said that the pagoda was inseparable from the cultural identity of Burma, and he would object to any development that had the potential to harm the historic monument.
“I only want development that will not bring harm to the Shwedagon,” he said.
Wednesday’s conference statement promised a nationwide petition campaign against the projects to be sent to relevant authorities in Rangoon and Naypyidaw.