Organizers Confident ‘Rich Men’ Will Fund $20Mln Cable Car on Karen Mountain

By San Yamin Aung 10 September 2013

RANGOON — A laymen committee at a Buddhist pagoda on Mount Zwekabin, a well-known landmark in Karen State, said it is confident that it can raise US$20 million in funds in order to build a cable car that would transport visitors to the top of the 700-meter high limestone peak.

The committee said it had already collected more than $100,000 from private donors for the government-supported project, adding that “rich men” would donate the remaining millions of dollars needed to complete the project. According to some reports, former junta leader Than Shwe and his wife are among the wealthy donors supporting the project.

Located near the Karen State capital Hpa-an and the Salween River, Zwekabin Mountain towers over its forested surroundings and a steep, paved trail leads up to the top. On the way there are numerous shrines and atop the mountain is a gold-leaf covered stupa, which is believed to hold a Buddhist hair relic.

Buddhist pilgrims have made the roughly 3-hour climb to the mountain top for hundreds of years, and the site attracts foreign and local tourists who visit Hpa-an, although it is not nearly as well-known as Mon State’s famous Kyaiktiyo Pagoda (Golden Rock).

In late July, Penang Sayadaw Bhaddnanta Pannyavamsa, one of three monks who initiated the project, told state-run media that Zwebakin Pagoda’s monks had received government approval for their long-standing plan to build a cable car all the way up to 725-meter limestone peak at an estimated cost of up to $22 million.

Penang Sayadaw said the massive project would be funded by private donors seeking to make Buddhist merit by donating to the pagoda. “Since this is a religious project, we will cover the cost by the donations of donors,” he was quoted as saying in a front-page article in the state-owned Myanma Alinn Daily. “The government has told us that they will assist with this project.”

Penang Sayadaw said the plan to spend tens of millions of dollars on a Buddhist complex in the impoverished ethnic Karen region made sense as it would be a boon for tourism, an industry that Naypyidaw has prioritized for development. “Since this is the first cable car project in Myanmar, foreigners from all over the world will come here… By attracting many travelers, business opportunities will also develop in this region,” the monk said.

Tuu Tuu Myint Thein, a spokesperson for the laymen committee in charge of the cable car project at Mount Zwekabin, said engineers from Special Methods & Engineering Techniques SDN BHD Malaysia Company and Myanmar Engineering Society would build the cable car, adding that equipment would be imported from Switzerland and the United States.

“The electric motor will be used to pull the cars from Lumbini Garden below, which is 1,650 meters from the top of mount, to the Buddha statue located at the top of Mt. Zwekabin,” she said, adding that the planned cable car could carry about 40 passengers at a time.

Tuu Tuu Myint Thein told The Irrawaddy on Monday about $114,000 had been donated to the project since it was announced in late July. “We received [a donation of US$27,500] just today,” she said. “We intend to implement this project within two years and estimate it will cost about $20 million.”

Asked how the committee expected to raise tens of millions from the public in one of Asia’s poorest countries, she said, “Rich men and businessmen from local and other areas are donating to this project.” Tuu Tuu Myint Thein declined to specify which wealthy Burmese Buddhists were expected to come up with the millions of dollars, but added, “We will get all that money since we have collected so much money already in a short period.”

A businessman involved in the project told The Irrawaddy that he heard that retired Burmese junta leader Than Shwe and his wife Kyaing Kyaing would contribute a significant amount of the required funding. The man, who declined to be named, said Kyaing Kyaing had previously donated to the construction a pagoda building on the mountain.

According to a businesswoman in Hpa-an, many local businessmen and senior government officials worship at Zwekabin Pagoda and many have supported the monks’ construction activities at the Buddhist complex on the mountain in the past.

Nan Khin Htwe Myint, chairperson for the National League for Democracy in Karen State, said the cable car project reportedly enjoys high-level government support, adding, “I just heard that a former official supports this project but I could not confirm it.”

Asked if she supported the construction of multi-million dollar, state-of-the-art cable car in the impoverished region, Nan Khin Htwe Myint said, “There are too many schools [in Karen State] that need to be repaired and there are too many places that still need donations, so I would prefer to keep the mountain natural and spend this money in
other, more needy places.

“I prefer the natural state [of the mountain]. Climbing a mountain naturally is also good although it is hard. But as development project, it is also good.”

Aung Ko, manager of Shwe Kyay Si Pilgrimage Tour in Rangoon, said few visitors currently come to Zwekabin Mountain “since it is very steep” and not very well-known nationwide. He said constructing a $20 million cable car would attract many more visitors to the area, as “it will be the very first cable car system in the country, so there will be a lot
of interest in that.”