Ma Ba Tha Threatens Nationwide Protests Against Shwedagon Highrise Projects

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 12 June 2015

RANGOON — Leading members of the Buddhist nationalist organization Ma Ba Tha have entered the fray in the debate over five controversial construction projects near Shwedagon Pagoda, threatening nationwide protests if the government refuses to cancel the developments.

U Pamaukkha, a senior Ma Ba Tha committee member, said there was widespread concern among the wider community over the potential impact of the developments on the sightlines and structural integrity of the historic religious monument.

“We are going to make a request to the government for the halt of these projects,” he told The Irrawaddy. “If we not successful, we will stage nationwide popular demonstrations.”

Senior members of the group, also known as the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, founded an advocacy group named ‘Society to Protect the Shwedagon’ over the weekend. Seven of the 11 members on the group’s committee are also members of Ma Ba Tha, according to senior monk U Pamaukkha, who said the society has a total membership of almost 100 monks and laypeople.

Known for public protests and sponsorship of interfaith marriage and population control laws widely understood to target Burma’s Muslim communities, senior Ma Ba Tha figures have come out strongly against the five developments, which have been shrouded in controversy since they were suspended in late January on the orders of the Myanmar Investment Commission.

Critics allege that excavation work for the developments has the potential to upset the water table underneath Singuttara Hill and upset the pagoda’s foundations. A recent forum held at Shwedagon by the Association of Myanmar Architects has called for a comprehensive risk assessment before any construction proceeds, although those interviewed by The Irrawaddy who participated in the forum all conceded their opposition to the projects.

Others, including Yangon Heritage Trust chairman Thant Myint-U, have claimed the projects circumvented a de facto regulation that prohibited building heights above 62 feet in the vicinity of Shwedagon, while backers of the developments claim the area permits heights of up to 190 feet. A draft zoning law which would formalize height restrictions for future construction projects in Rangoon has been stalled in the divisional parliament since last year.

U Parmakka said that members of the Society to Protect the Shwedagon were resolutely opposed to any high-rise developments near the sacred site for the same reasons canvassed by other critics.

“We are against them because they may block the view to the pagoda and we are worried they may threaten its stability,” he said. “There are so many places in Rangoon for these kinds of developments. Allowing them near the pagoda is an insult to Shwedagon. “

A proposal to discuss the cancelation of the projects, tabled by independent lawmaker Dr Nyo Nyo Thin, was voted down in the divisional parliament on Tuesday. Rangoon Planning Minister Than Myint claimed that as the projects were being constructed on land leased from the military, the matter was the responsibility of the Union government. A similar proposal was introduced in Naypyidaw on the same day and will be discussed in the coming weeks.