Monks Add Voices to Shwedagon Protection Calls

By Nobel Zaw 21 May 2015

RANGOON — Prominent monks and Buddhist nationalist organizations have joined the chorus of voices to question developments planned for nearly 72 acres of land near Shwedagon Pagoda, days after experts warned the projects could affect the sacred site’s structural integrity.

On the weekend, an assembly of engineers and urban planning experts at the “Save our Shwedagon” forum claimed that excavation works for the five developments risked upsetting the water table underneath Singuttara Hill and potentially damaging the pagoda. The forum, hosted by the Association of Myanmar Architects, called for the adoption of a conservation management plan for the site.

In the days since, Buddhist leaders have gone public with their opposition to the developments. U Parmauka, abbot of Rangoon’s Magwe Priyati Monastery, told The Irrawaddy that monks believed the projects were “disrespectful” to the country’s most revered religious icon.

“Shwedagon Pagoda is for all locals and foreigners of Buddhist faith,” he said. “For the endurance of our religion… I would sacrifice my life to take care of the pagoda. I do not know why the authorities gave away the land near Shwedagon despite how highly it was sought, and I doubt that the authorities have real faith in Buddhism.”

Aung Myaing, a central committee member of the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion (also known as Ma Ba Tha), said that members of his group had urged an investigation into the developments.

“Our organization is worried that if the projects resume, it will affect the foundation of Shwedagon Pagoda,” he said. “They should not proceed and [threats to the pagoda] should be investigated carefully.”

An April 30 statement from Ma Ba Tha also warned that Rangoon’s increasingly crowded skyline risked blocking views of Shwedagon, and excavation work around the pagoda could threaten the strength of the structure.

“Because of overpopulation, exploitative business and unaccountable authorities, people in Rangoon and Bagan are losing their cultural heritage,” the statement read. “In particular, Shwedagon Pagoda faces the risk of losing its cultural heritage. If the culture disappears, the country and the nationality will disappear too.”

The statement said that Rangoon’s Sule Pagoda, which has been overshadowed in recent years by large commercial developments, was an instructive example of overdevelopment, and said that Shwedagon should be spared the same mistake.

The abbot of the Shwe Nya Wah Monastery in Rangoon’s Hmawbi Township told The Irrawaddy that all citizens of Burma should oppose the project, saying that President Thein Sein’s 2011 cancelation of the controversial Myitsone Dam project demonstrated that politicians would respond to sustained public pressure.

“All people who have the Buddhist faith in their hearts should defend Shwedagon,” said Ashin Pyinna Thiha, commonly referred to as Shwe Nya Wah Sayadaw. “The beautiful pagoda is an object of glory and has a long history, so we should oppose any threats to it.”

Marga Landmark, developers of the 22-acre Dagon City 1 mixed-use development near Shwedagon’s southern entrance, said in a May 9 statement that it had reassured the Myanmar Investment Commission that work on the project “will be carried out with the utmost care and due diligence without affecting the foundations of Singuttara Hill and underground water.”