Shwe Dagon Pagoda, Political Significance of

   Although primarily a religious site, the Shwe Dagon Pagoda has functioned as a contested public space of great importance during the colonial and postcolonial periods. It was occupied by British troops during the First Anglo-Burmese War of 1824-1826, and again in 1852 following the annexation of Rangoon (Yangon) and Lower Burma during the Second Anglo-Burmese War. Because of its strategic location, part of the pagoda platform, including the western staircase, was occupied by British troops between 1852 and 1929. Although maintenance of the pagoda remained in Burmese Buddhist hands and a Board of Trustees for this purpose was established in 1885, the remains of British soldiers were buried at the site (later removed), and part of the grounds was at one time used as an ammunition dump. The British also attempted to tunnel into the base of the pagoda. By the second decade of the 20th century, this continuing desecration, together with the unwillingness of Western visitors to the pagoda (and other Buddhist sites) to doff their shoes, had become political issues, taken up by the Young Men's Buddhist Association and the General Council of Buddhist Associations (later the General Council of Burmese Associations), which saw defense of the Buddhist religion as part of their nationalist program.
   Participants in the students' strike against the act that established Rangoon (Yangon) University gathered at the Shwe Dagon on December 3, 1920, and a monument at the southwest corner of the pagoda platform commemorates this event. Subsequent student strikes, in 1936 and 1938-1939, used the pagoda and its environs as bases of operation, and it was an objective of a massive march undertaken in support of the 1938 Oil Field Workers' Strike. After World War II, Bogyoke Aung San made political speeches from the pagoda hill. On August 26, 1988, his daughter Aung San Suu Kyi made a speech in the public grounds adjoining the pagoda, attended by huge crowds, which marked the beginning of her leadership of the prodemocracy movement.
   The military regime established on September 18, 1988, has sought to "occupy" the pagoda both physically and ideologically. In 1999, the State Peace and Development Council sponsored largescale renovation, including replacement of the bejewelled hti (umbrella) at its apex, which had been donated by King Mindon in 1871. Official photographs show Lieutenant General Khin Nyunt and other high SPDC officers at the apex of the pagoda, presiding over installation of the new hti, images that advertise their spiritual worthiness and high status.

Historical Dictionary of Burma (Myanmar). . 2014.

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