Make no mistake, Burma’s reforms are genuine. In the past few days, pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi has delivered her party’s election campaign into the country’s conflict-ridden far north, while a senior ranking politician – Thura Shwe Mann – has had the audacity to claim the pace of government reforms are too sluggish and much more needs to be done.
Such criticisms were unheard of just a year ago. However, his remarks and Suu Kyi’s ongoing rural adventures pale when compared with the thousands of people who walked barefoot in ancient dress to the famed Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon to mark an annual festival banned by the military for the past two decades.
The ancient Shwedagon Pagoda is genuinely a great surviving marvel of human history.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Its gold plated spires and stupas, white marble walkways and shrines are sprinkled liberally with diamonds and gems, gifted by generations of kings whose legitimacy depended upon the approval of the Buddhist clergy. Its holy relics apparently include eight strands of Buddha’s hair.
Burma’s nominally civilian government will also require religious approval if its bid to open the country to the outside world, while retaining a power structure that incorporates an overwhelming military influence, is to win acceptance at home.
Hence celebrations marking the 2,600 year anniversary of Buddha’s enlightenment at the pagoda – which has often also been used as a rallying point for protests by opposition political groups – carried much weight in the isolated country.
It was here that Suu Kyi launched her political career in 1988, with a speech that won the hearts and minds of up to a million people who had braved the military and overwhelmed the pagoda, prompting paranoid authorities to ban festivals and gatherings of more than five people.
In winning its desired approval the government, with 25 percent of its seats in parliament reserved for the military, has a long way to go given the 2007 crackdown on protesting monks demanding democratic reforms, known as the Saffron uprising.
Many were killed then, and human rights groups have said it remains impossible to put an exact figure on the death toll and those who were incarcerated simply for marching.
Now, government officials are attending the festival they once spurned, alongside pilgrims bearing gifts of flowers, candles and colored flags, as monks begin their traditional 15-day chant.
The government and military should expect their nation’s devoutly Buddhist citizenry to be wary of their true intentions and designs for a long time to come. But by allowing this year’s festival to proceed, one small but highly important barrier between them has been removed.