Burma Tightens Security at Buddhist Sites, Following Bodha Gaya Blasts

By Zarni Mann 9 July 2013

RANGOON — The government has tightened security at Burma’s main Buddhist sites and police have been stationed at Rangoon’s Shwedagon Pagoda, Mandalay’s Maha Myat Muni Pagoda and at the historical temple complex of Bagan.

The measures were taken following a series of bomb blasts on Sunday at Bodh Gaya in northern India, one of Buddhism’s holiest sites.

On Sunday night, Burmese authorities sent about 70 armed police to guard the entrance points to the upper terrace surrounding Shwedagon Pagoda, where they check visitors and search their bags, according to the pagoda’s trustees. Plain clothes security personnel were also seen patrolling along the pagoda’s platform on Tuesday.

Shwedagon Pagoda is an important pilgrimage site for Burmese Buddhists and a major draw for international tourists.

“Policemen have taken over security at the pagoda. We have our own security group, but it is not enough as we are not armed or highly-authorized, so we cannot provide enough security for pilgrims,” said Win Kyaing, chief trustee of Shwedagon Pagoda.

“We don’t want our Buddhist religious sites to be blown up like in India. So, we will protect this holy place as much as we can,” he said. “We are cooperating with police to ensure convenience for the pilgrims.”

In Mandalay, armed security forces were posted at the entry of the compound of Maha Myat Muni Pagoda, home to a venerated Buddhist image called Maha Myat Muni. Visitors are being asked to leave their bags in lockers at the pagoda’s entrance.

Residents at historical Buddhist temple complex at Bagan in central Burma said that police forces were stationed there in recent days. Security was reportedly also put in place at pagodas in Kyaukse and Pyin Oo Lwin, both sites in central Burma.

Officers at police stations at Rangoon Division and Mandalay Division offices declined to comment on the security measures when contacted by The Irrawaddy on Tuesday.

The security measures were taken after a series of bomb blasts injured two people on Sunday at Bodh Gaya, a Unesco World heritage site in India’s Bihar State, where the Buddha is believed to have gained enlightenment.

Some Indian media reports claim that the attacks were conducted by radical Muslim groups seeking to avenge violence committed against Muslims in Burma by Buddhist groups.

Waves of inter-communal violence have rocked Burma since June 2012 and have left about 250 people dead and some 150,000 people, mostly Muslims, homeless. The government has been accused of doing little to prevent attacks on the country’s Muslim minorities.

During a government press conference on the situation in Arakan State on Tuesday, officials were asked if the bomb attacks in India could affect Burma’s inter-communal tensions.

“Myanmar is a Buddhist majority country with different other religions and national ethnic groups and so on. So, we are concerned whenever tensions happen [anywhere] between religious groups,” deputy foreign minister Than Kyaw said.

“As you know we are trying to promote interfaith trust building in our country. This is a priority right now,” he said, adding that the government condemned any acts of terror such as those that occurred in Bodh Gaya.

Burmese travel agents who specialize in providing Buddhist pilgrimages trips to Bodh Gaya said that their tour programs were not being affected by the incidents.

“We received some enquiries about the security situation there in Bodh Gaya and questions about whether or not the travels agents have cancelled their tours,” said an employee at Mahar Toe Travels in Rangoon. “But until now we’ve had no cancellations, neither from our destination sites nor from our customers.”

Additional reporting by Lawi Weng.