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Myanmar junta goes big on giant Buddha statue in midst of crisis

State Media Blitz Over Project Suggests Bid To Win Hearts And Minds

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Marble statues of Buddha sit in various stages of completion in marble-rich Mandalay. About 90% of Myanmar's population is Buddhist.   © Reuters

Even as Myanmar's economy languishes, construction is underway on a massive Buddha statue in the capital, Naypyitaw, in an apparent bid by the junta to win the hearts and minds of the nation's religious majority.

The sitting statue will stand roughly 19 meters tall when completed next year, making it the world's largest marble Buddha, a state newspaper reports. By comparison, the bronze Buddha at Japan's Todaiji temple in Nara is about 15 meters high.

Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the junta chief, attended a ceremony for the statue in late April. He was joined by other military figures and members of the State Administration Council, the junta's highest decision-making body.

The monument will serve as a place of prayer for national peace and stability, according to state media. The extensive coverage of the event gives the statue the trappings of a national project.

"Under the military regime established in 1988, leaders increased construction of pagodas and offerings to well-known monks," said Yoshihiro Nakanishi, an associate professor at Kyoto University who is an expert on Myanmar.

Min Aung Hlaing "is apparently seeking to demonstrate the depth of his faith in order to gain support from the public," Nakanishi said.

The Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon: In 2009, Myanmar's previous military government built another pagoda in the new capital, Naypyitaw, modeled after this landmark.

About 90% of Myanmar's population is Buddhist. On Feb. 2, the day after the coup, Min Aung Hlaing paid a courtesy call to a high priest in Naypyitaw.

Afterward, the general announced that pagodas would reopen to the public for worship, lifting the restrictions enacted during the coronavirus pandemic. A military-linked television broadcaster showed footage of soldiers cleaning the pagodas.

Plans to build the giant Buddha statue in Naypyitaw predate the coup. In 2013, an entrepreneur announced a donation of the marble to build the statue. Min Aung Hlaing became a backer in 2017, and preparations began to construct the monument.

The statue is being put together in pre-carved pieces of marble extracted and transported from a quarry in the central Mandalay region of mineral-rich Myanmar.

In 2009, under a previous military government, junta leader Gen. Than Shwe presided over the construction of the golden Uppatasanti Pagoda in Naypyitaw. The government had recently moved the capital from Yangon, so the structure was modeled after that city's Shwedagon Pagoda.