Myanmar’s junta inaugurated a 1,700-ton Buddha statue at a grand ceremony in the capital Tuesday that was secretly mocked by citizens used to the military’s efforts to win respectability through religion.
The unveiling of the Maravijaya Buddha to mark the full moon day of Waso is the latest attempt by a military regime in Myanmar to present itself as being aligned with religion in the Buddhist-majority country, despite resorting to violence to enforce their grip on power.
Civil servants had “no other choice but to go” to the ceremony, despite Waso being a holiday, said a resident of Naypyidaw who, like several others RFA Burmese contacted for this report, spoke on condition of anonymity, citing security concerns.
“What I am sure of is that no civilians who aren’t government employees joined the ceremony,” he said. “Only [junta] employees who were forced to join went there. The military even arranged transportation for them.”
Waso, also known as Dhammasetkya Day, commemorates the first sermon Buddha ever delivered, and Myanmar’s latest junta pulled out all the stops.
The ordination ceremony in the capital Naypyidaw for the 63-foot-tall Buddha, which sits atop an 18-foot-tall throne, was the most extensive official religious event in the country since the military under Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing seized power two-and-a-half years ago.
Pro-junta media have dubbed the 58 billion-kyat (US$27.6 million) carving “the world’s largest marble sitting Buddha statue,” ordered built by the junta chief to “show the international community that Buddhism is flourishing in Myanmar” and to “bring peace to the country and the world.”
But residents of the capital were quick to point out the hypocrisy of the regime’s message of harmony when its security forces are responsible for the deaths of 3,861 civilians since the Feb. 1, 2021 coup d’etat.
“What we see is that the junta is using a lot of money and manpower in building the statue to make it more famous than previous pagodas,” said another resident. “I have no plans to visit, as it was built by the blood-stained hands of the military dictator.”
Other critics of the project have slammed the statue as a vanity project for Min Aung Hlaing, who they say hopes to paint himself as a protector of Buddhism in Myanmar.
Rights activist Zaw Yan pointed out that the money used to build the statue was part of Myanmar’s national budget. He questioned why it wasn’t used to feed people who are starving because of the junta’s economic mismanagement or provide aid to the 2 million the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says have been displaced by conflict in the country since the takeover.
“This is just the junta’s attempt to appear as if [Min Aung Hlaing] is a holy king in hope of gaining people’s support as a political exit,” he said.
‘Remembered as murderers’
Sai Kyi Zin Soe, a political analyst, told RFA that Min Aung Hlaing likely built the Maravijaya Buddha statue in a bid to whitewash his legacy, ward off danger and prolong his rule.
“That’s what [junta chiefs] usually do,” he said. “There have been similar examples of this in the past.”
The statue’s ordination was reminiscent of one in February 2002, when the country’s former junta under Senior Gen. Than Shwe held a ceremony to consecrate a 560-ton, 37-foot-tall marble Buddha statue known as the Loka Chantha Abhaya Labha Muni in Yangon.
Than Shwe moved Myanmar’s capital from the city to Naypyidaw in 2006 and three years later built the Uppatasanti Pagoda there – its name invoking a Buddhist mantra believed to protect against foreign invasion.
In 1986, former junta leader General Ne Win completed the Maha Wizaya Pagoda, whose name means “extraordinary success,” south of the revered Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. However, few people visit the pagoda these days because of its association with the dictator, whose regime was responsible for killing unarmed students, monks and other civilians in a bloody 1988 coup.
In addition to the statue’s unveiling on Tuesday, the junta also announced an amnesty that reduced the prison term of the jailed head of the deposed National League for Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi, by six years and that of the country’s ousted president, Win Myint, by four. It also ordered the release of thousands of inmates from prisons around the country.
The junta often announces amnesties on Buddhist religious days.
“Of course they want to be rulers who are seen to revere Buddhism … but they are remembered as murderers, not as devout religious leaders,” said Kyee Myint, a human rights lawyer. “[Try as they may] their wrongdoings will remain recorded in history.”
Waryama, a leader of the Spring Revolution Sangha Network of anti-junta Buddhist monks, likened such acts to “hiding a dead elephant with the skin of a goat,” or attempts of deception.
“Generations of tyrants and dictators in our country build these temples and pagodas to cover up their atrocities and killing of the people.,” he said. “[The junta] is using the Buddha’s image to try to continue its rule of the country so that it can inflict more cruelty … In fact, worshiping Buddha statues is just a superficial custom of Buddhism.”
Buddhist in name only
The statue unveiled on Tuesday, whose name Maravijaya means “the Buddha who overcomes the devil’s interference,” is imbued with Buddhist symbolism.
According to the Institute for Strategy and Policy (ISP-Myanmar), an independent research group, worship of the Maravijaya statue involves the number nine, seen as auspicious by Myanmar’s superstitious military leaders.
The combined weight of the statue (1,782 tons) and throne (3,510 tons) is 5,292 tons. When 5,292 is added together until one digit remains (5+2+9+2=18, 1+8=9), the result is nine.
The same is true for the combined height of the Buddha and its throne, as well as the number of adjoining stone stupas (720), the number of days required to complete the statue (1,143), the number of monks in attendance at the ceremony (900), and the date of the ordination (8/1).
But Hla Kyaw Zaw, a Burmese political analyst living in China, said that Myanmar’s military leaders “don’t actually believe in religion.”
“They intend to mislead the people by building Buddha statues,” he said, or “try to set their guilty minds at peace with such religious deeds.”
s committed some of the worst atrocities since the coup amid an offensive against fierce anti-junta resistance, said Min Aung Hlaing could never build enough statues to atone for the killings under his leadership.
“The sins of the many murders he has committed cannot be cleared by any means,” he said. “He will definitely suffer in hell regardless of how many meritorious deeds he does.”
Translated by Myo Min Aung. Edited by Joshua Lipes and Matthew Reed.