The Shwedagon factor

The controversy related to the projects close to the Shwedagon Pagoda lingers on after a Buddhist group, including members of the Ma Ba Tha, demanded the immediate cancellation of all five developments in its vicinity.

Although the Yangon Regional Parliament gave the projects the all clear in June, the Buddhist group promised “nationwide protests” if they are not immediately ceased. Meanwhile, the Myanmar Investment Commission (MIC), who allowed the projects to go ahead before calling a halt in January, continues its investigation.

Shwedagon holds importance for Buddhists in Myanmar and around the globe, who revere it as a sacred site. Protecting it is crucial.

Meanwhile Myanmar is at a crossroads. As the country emerges from decades of isolation, increased influences from abroad will gradually pick away at aspects of local culture.

The early signs are already there. Longyis are being replaced by jeans, mobile phones conquered the masses and skyscrapers now stand where traditional homes once did. Soon KFC will open its first outlet in Myanmar.

Clearly the government wants to make Myanmar an attractive investment destination, but how does it balance that with preserving its heritage?

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When it was announced, the USD 300 million Dagon City 1 project was the most high profile real estate project in the country. For businesspeople in all sectors apprehensive about investing here, that project remains a point of reference. If it, and others alongside it, are brought to a halt, then that will undoubtedly hurt Myanmar’s reputation as a place to do business.

Ma Ba Tha aside, those questioning the projects have been some of the most reasonable voices during Myanmar’s transition. Parliamentarian Nyo Nyo Thin and historian Thant Myint-U have called for specialised laws to protect the pagoda and raised legitimate questions.

An outright halt to the projects seems unlikely, but the authorities now have a responsibility to ensure that whatever decision it makes on the projects’ future is done so in the interests of the country, balancing economic interests with cultural ones. 

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