Paris takes us to Shwedagon Temple , Myanmar ’s most famous temple with its many surrounding stuppas.
It has become even more famous over the last couple of months, as the gathering point for the monks during the recent uprising, the start of most of their marches, and the scene of many arrests. It is somewhat over the top, to say the least, and even overshadows Paris, with its many gold Stuppas and the enormous gold temple, topped with a 76 carat diamond and many precious stones. It can be seen from almost everywhere in the city.
It is obvious why it is the focal point for the Burmese, and why the Myanmar people are so proud of it. But could the money have been put to better use? It is a pointed question that probably cannot be answered.
“Where are all the monks?” is another pointed question that we do ask Paris. We have spent two hours wandering around this magnificent temple and can count on both hands the number of monks we have seen? “They have all been sent back to their home villages” he tells us.
In fact, Yangon is no longer the capital. The government has built a new capital hundreds of miles to the north, in the middle of the jungle, cut off from the rest of the nation. All personnel and offices have been moved. The existing government buildings in Yangon have simply been shuttered and surrounded by barbed wire.
Everyone we speak to is horrified at this move and the costs involved.
Similarly the University Campus in the heart of the City of Yangon, set in the middle of wonderful grounds and spreading across many acres, has been closed and surrounded by barbed wire. A brand new concrete jungle of a campus has been built outside the city, an hour’s bus journey for most of the students. Paris explains that the Government announced that they wanted to enlarge the University and that this Campus was no longer viable. But he also readily admits that it would appear that the regime wanted to make sure that the students could be monitored more easily and kept well away from the City centre.
When we say to Paris that it is a terrible waste to see these buildings all empty, and suggest that they could be turned into apartments for the people, he explains that this would cost a lot of money that the government doesn’t have. Unclear on the concept only goes so far, until you are forced to say “DUH!”.
The city will have a hard time reinventing itself after the loss of the Government Buildings and the University. Interestingly, to date none of the embassies is willing to move to the new capital, despite repeated requests from the regime.
All of this, Paris feels free to discuss with us fairly openly, albeit in English which few people around us will understand. But it is a different matter when it comes to the American Embassy. We are forewarned that we are approaching it and under no circumstances are we to take photos. We get no closer to it than the nearest corner where we are told to take a furtive look and then leave. This seems particularly strange for an American tourist, but Paris clearly wants to stay well away from the Embassy.