Burmese Pokémon Chasers Intrude on Religious Sites

By Kyaw Hsu Mon 12 August 2016

RANGOON — The avid pursuit of virtual creatures via mobile phone screens has brought urban Pokémon chasers into the compounds of various places of worship, prompting a polite expulsion order in one recorded case at a pagoda in Mandalay.

Pokémon Go—an augmented-reality game developed by San Francisco-based Niantic for Android and Apple devices—was launched in Burma’s major cities, including Rangoon and Mandalay, last weekend, as part of a rollout across Southeast Asia.

Players use GPS and their own two feet to search real-world locations for Pokémon—visible through their phone screen—with names such as Nidoran, Raticate, Rattata, Exeggcute, Exeggutor, Gastly, Pidgey and Tangela.

Initially, players in Burma experienced difficulties with the game’s GPS function, and some found it to be incompatible with their phones—although most glitches appear now to have been ironed out.

Pokémon “gyms”—spaces where Pokémon “trainers” can fight with one another—are located in landmark sites including People’s Park, City Hall and Kandawgyi Park in Rangoon.

However, in search of new Pokémon, Burma’s urban players—largely youths, of both genders—have been spotted on the hunt in Buddhist pagodas, churches and mosques.

On Wednesday, a video clip was posted on Facebook of a trustee at Aung Taw Mu Pagoda in the city of Mandalay speaking through a loudspeaker: “Youths who are playing phone games in front of the pagoda, please leave so as not to disturb those praying. We request you to stay away from [the vicinity] of the pagoda.”

“I expected this would soon become an issue. Pokémon gamers should be mindful of religion and culture while chasing Pokémon,” said Bone Pyae Sone, a 26-year-old Pokémon chaser in Rangoon.

He anticipated that, unless players change their behavior, pagodas might soon bear signboards prohibiting Pokémon chasing.

Htoo Tay Zar, another Pokémon chaser, was skeptical that players would continue to invade places of worship in large numbers: “We can access [Pokémon] within 200 to 300 feet of buildings. We don’t need to go inside.”

“Religious authorities need not be worried if they find young people wandering outside their buildings. It is just the nature of the game,” he added.

“Players should be mindful of playing Pokémon at night. In some townships, muggers on motorbikes seize mobile phones from pedestrians. Since this game can be played with friends, it is better to search for Pokémon in groups,” said Htoo Tay Zar.

Although credited by some for getting increasingly sedentary youth out of doors and interacting with each other, the game has been criticized in a range of areas.

Players meeting accidents in different countries have been widely circulated on social media. Virtual content has been removed from some sensitive areas across the world, due to complaints, including the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park in Japan.

Government officials in some countries, including Egypt, Russia and Indonesia, have deemed the game a security threat, amid concerns that it could be utilized by foreign intelligence agencies. During the constitutional referendum in Thailand earlier this month, players were ordered to keep clear of polling stations.