This is the Sule Pagoda, located in downtown Yangon, currently undergoing a restoration of sorts, just in time for Myanmar’s transition to full democracy. The scaffolding forms many sharp points aimed at the sky. This renovation, refurbishing the weather-damaged monument with gold plates, each costing around $1,100, seems an entreaty towards the sky, and possibly something greater. The costs, unsurprisingly, are significant for the impoverished Southeast Asian nation, but for pious Buddhists, it is apparently worth it.
But this site has more than divine significance. It was also a site for two uprisings – the 8888 Uprising and the Saffron Revolution. In the former, Aung San Suu Kyi emerged as a national icon and tried to stir up the democratic spirit, before being placed under house arrest. In the latter, monks took to the streets with their saffron-colored robes in protest, until the junta cracked down on them. In this way the pagoda became both a holy site, and a memorial for past brutalities.
“This is our spiritual belief that people worship at the pagoda, wishing for the best for their future, their family,” said Aye, a Sule trustee board member, who like many in Myanmar goes by one name. Also, perhaps unrelated but still good to know, the word for gold in Burmese, ‘Shwe’, is a hugely popular name. Gold itself has long had a crucial role within the country, with colonial era Burmese women mainly having jewelry made of gemstones and gold. After independence, gold became even more important as the junta’s socialistic policies tore apart the economy, leaving the population with a deep suspicion of government banks.
The regilding is set to be completed by the end of March. Perhaps, viewing the pagoda at night, a bit of this can be understood beyond the fervent desire to restore this small monument into its former glory. Light glinting off the surfaces, sends yellow reflections sprawling into the darkness. It feels like something the citizenry of the ragged state can rally around. It feels like some distant dream coming impossibly close to reality…