Saving the Spirit of Shwedagon

By Aung Zaw 19 May 2015

In 1871, the local Sangha in Rangoon were seeking assistance in restoring the ‘htidaw’, or ornament, that sat at the top of Shwedagon Pagoda’s spire. They refused to approach the British, who had by this time consolidated their hold on Lower Burma, as they did not recognize the legitimacy of the new occupying power. When King Mindon heard the news from his palace in Mandalay, he sent a new diamond-studded htidaw down the Irrawaddy River by steamer, and it has shone from the top of Singuttara Hill ever since—though the British colonization would prevent the king from ever seeing it with his own eyes.

No other place in Burma rivals the pagoda’s historical, political, religious and cultural significance of Shwedagon. Independence leaders rallied crowds on its grounds. It was the site of Aung San Suu Kyi’s first public speech and it was a sanctuary to those fleeing persecution during the 1988 crackdown. Aung San was buried nearby, while his wife Khin Kyi and former United Nations Secretary-General U Thant were interred in mausoleums near the pagoda’s southern entrance.

In recent times, many have sought to capitalize on Shwedagon’s iconic status for their own ends. It has been the site of rallies organized by hardline Buddhist nationalists. A replica pagoda, Uppatasanti, was built in Naypyidaw to legitimize the relocation of Burma’s capital to the center of the country. The generals of the former military regime infamously sought to absolve themselves of their misdeeds by renovating Shwedagon and other nearby religious monuments.

What the junta gave with one hand, they took away with the other—nearly 52 acres of land next to Shwedagon, owned by the military, was sold to local company Thu Kha Yadanar in 2013 after an auction by the Quartermaster General’s Office, at a reported lifetime cost of US$221 million. That land is now the site of the Dagon City 1 and 2 developments. Three more construction projects in the area spread over a further 20 acres have also been granted approval by the Myanmar Investment Commission (MIC), the Rangoon Division government and the Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC).

Aung Zaw is the founding editor-in-chief of The Irrawaddy.
Aung Zaw is the founding editor-in-chief of The Irrawaddy.
Aung Zaw is the founding editor-in-chief of The Irrawaddy.

At the end of January, the MIC halted work on the five developments, pending a review by the Myanmar Engineers Society and a committee of the YCDC. The suspension appears to remain in force, but the resulting publicity around the projects has led to an increasing tide of criticism. On Sunday, over 300 people attended a forum about the potential impact of the developments on Shwedagon, listening to testimony from architects, geologists and engineers which warned that the developments could affect the structural integrity of the sacred site.

Developers say they have abided by the law in pursuing these projects, and there is no reason to doubt them: the question is why stricter regulations were not in force to prevent these sorts of developments to begin with.

Numerous critics have expressed concern with the projects blocking the view of Shwedagon. Progress on a draft zoning law that would restrict future development proposals around the pagoda to a height of 62 feet has been stalled for nearly 18 months. Independent experts at Sunday’s forum said that insufficient consideration had been given to the impact of the five developments on the surrounding area. If this proves to be the case, legal change is needed to ensure that future building approvals are contingent upon a comprehensive engineering and environmental analysis, at arms length from decision makers in government.

Above all, the public response to this affair shows that the people of Rangoon want a voice in how their city is developed. Future projects of this magnitude should be thrown open to public consultation and feedback, rather than being the sole prerogative of the YCDC, the divisional government and the MIC. It is the public who are custodians of the pagoda and its history, and they have made their desires clear: they want to keep the horizon that King Mindon never had a chance to cast his eyes upon.

Aung Zaw is the founding editor of The Irrawaddy.