Resisting the Dagon City Project (2010-2015)
With the opening up of Myanmar, there have been a number of plans to develop certain parts of the the city centre in Yangon. In 2014, the Myanmar government greenlit several ongoing plans to develop land around Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, a major buddhist temple in the area situated along the Shwedagon Pagoda Road, a little further north of the central part of downtown Yangon. In January of 2010, over one hundred building properties were to be issued for auction by the government, including buildings belonging to the high court.
The area of development measured up to 22 acres of land surrounding the pagoda, that had once belonged to the military junta. The intended project was to develop mixed-use residential and commercial area, dubbed the Dagon City Project. The project development comprised of five different developer companies looking to build on the land, including Marga Landmark Ltd.
The project had already been greenlit, but in 2015 President Thein Sein shut the project down. This was due the public unrest and protests to stop the project from happening. Following public announcement of Shwedagon development, public groups came together to express their dissatisfaction with the government’s decision to allow the development on religious territory. Most prominently was the group of Buddhist monks, known as The Ma Ba Tha (otherwise known as Association of the Protection of Race and Religion). Several campaigns were run to raise awareness to the public along with petition based campaigns – the group were concerned that the development would tarnish the sacredness of the site and the possibility of structural damage the construction and development would have on the pagoda. They were supported by the Society to Protect the Shwedagon. During this time, the Buddhist monks of the Ma Ba Tha made it clear that they had no qualms about ex-communicate the government should their actions prove unsatisfactory. Ex-communication involves excluding the government from religious sacraments and events. Buddhism is a large part of the people of Myanmar’s everyday life and so the threat weighed on the decisions of the government,
The southeast asian newspaper publication, The Irrawaddy, played a part in persuading the shutdown of the project as well. Their approach was to continuously publish articles and stories in hopes to expose the truth of the developers and the Shwedagon project deal. It was reported by the newspaper themself that Marga Landmark had prepared a lawsuit against an Irrawaddy reporter for the extensive coverage that was done on the company, that led them to later issue a statement claiming that the stories were ‘untrue’ and ‘prejudiced’. The public resistance and unrest, however, was able to eventually sway the government’s decision and the project was then cancelled.
The Shwedagon has always been a major cultural part of Yangon’s heritage because of their great reverence in the Buddhist religion. Originally, a law was instituted to restrict the development surrounding the pagoda, so as not to block of the views to such a religious site. It seems however, that appropriate sanctions were not put in place by the time of the Dagon City Project had commenced. The Shwedagon not only serves religious importance, but political as well. Dating back to the british colonial era, the pagoda served as a political site where the public and the buddhist monks would challenge authority. Even kings of that time would pay religious homage and respect. The pagoda became a site not only known for religion but one that symbolised control over the people. The Shwedagon pagoda continued to be a gathering point and site of political resistance during the 1988 uprising,a tone that appeared repeated in the more recent 2007 saffron revolution as well. At the time of the ‘88 resistance, the pagoda was termed “the soul of the nation” by Aung Saan Suu Kyi herself. A great political symbol for the people.
Kyaw Phyo Tha. “Monks Vow to March Against Rangoon Projects After Govt Breaks Promise.” The Irrawaddy , July 6, 2015. Accessed December 11, 2017. https://www.irrawaddy.com/news/burma/monks-vow-to-march-against-rangoon-projects-after-govt-breaks-promise.html
Kyaw Zwa Moe. “Speaking Out Against the Shwedagon Highrise Projects.” The Irrawaddy , July 11, 2015. Accessed December 11, 2017. https://www.irrawaddy.com/opinion/speaking-out-against-the-shwedagon-highrise-projects.html.
“Myanmar Government Blocks Project near Sacred Pagoda.” Asian Sentinel , July 8, 2015. Accessed December 13, 2017. https://www.asiasentinel.com/econ-business/myanmar-government-blocks-project-near-sacred-pagoda/.
Philp, Janette, and David Mercer. “Politicised Pagodas and Veiled Resistance: Contested Urban Space in Burma.” Urban Studies 39, no. 9 (2002): 1587-610. doi:10.1080/00420980220151673.