Welcome to our last post for 2013! This week, we feature religious diversity in Burma, the capital city of Naypyitaw, rising costs of living in Yangon, and new security measures in Kyaiktiyo Pagoda.
Burma is an ethnically and religiously diverse country. Buddhism is practiced by majority of the population, but there are Jews, Hindus, Christians, and Muslims in the country as well. Religious buildings found in Yangon are a reflection of Burma’s rich cultural heritage.
The Musmeah Yeshua Synangogue, dating back to 1896 has been cared for by the Samuels family for many generations. Although there were more than 2,500 Jews in Yangon, fewer than 20 live in the city today. As Yangon’s skyline changes due to the influx of foreign direct investments, the Jewish community is working hard to preserve the synagogue and preserve Jewish culture in the country. Visitors are welcome, but there are no longer regular services since the last rabbi left in the 1960s.
Furthering this week’s theme of religious diversity, Pope Francis recently authorized a decree recognizing the martyrdom of Isidore Ko Lat, a lay catechist murdered by Burmese rebels in 1950. Burma is celebrating 500 years of Catholicism in the country next year, and is hoping for a visit from Pope.
Although there are venues for interfaith networking and dialogue, sectarian violence between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in western Arakan State has rendered 140,000 people homeless. Rohingyas claim that 748 people have died, while the official number is 192. The 1982 Citizenship Act formally excludes Rohingya from the official list of 135 ethnic groups, and Burma has rejected a U.N. resolution urging the country to grant them citizenship. In Kyaw Min’s article 10 Things You Need to Know Myanmar’s Persecuted Muslim Minority, he writes, “our ‘crime’ was declaring our rights as ethnic Rohingya”.
Now, more than ever, as the international community invests in, and delivers aid to Burma, it is critical to urge the government to respect and uphold the rights of the Rohingya and all ethnic groups in the country.
The SEA Games are in full swing, with majority of the games being held in the newly-built Wunna Theikdi stadium in Naypyitaw, the capital city of Burma. Meaning ‘abode of the kings’ or ‘royal capital’, Naypyitaw was built by the military from scratch, and has been dubbed as “Ozymandian“, and a “ghost capital hacked out of the jungle“.
Construction of the new capital began in 2002 at an astronomical cost, and with the use of forced labour. The city is home to shopping malls, sprawling six-lane highways, a replica of the Shwedagon Pagoda, military residences, and a zoo. Although it was officially declared the capital city in 2005, it was not open to the public until 2010. It remains unclear why the capital city was moved from Yangon, and despite government claims that about 925,000 residents live in Naypyitaw, the city is strangely empty. International organizations and diplomats have been reluctant to move to Naypyitaw – with the exception of Malaysia and Bangladesh, who have paid $1.5 million for an embassy plot.
The city is vast, and the massive buildings are spaced so far apart that getting from one place to another is difficult. Lack of a public transportation system exacerbates the problem. The impracticality of the city is evident during the SEA Games, where athletes, members of the media, and spectators have reported difficulties getting from one venue to another.
Cost of Living on the Rise
Yangon is now the 6th most expensive Southeast Asian city for expatriates to live and work. The ranking was based on the average price of weekly groceries, and the cost of basic goods and general services.
Rent and property prices are also on the rise, and a new zoning plan could drive property prices even higher. The new plan ensures that areas around the Sule Pagoda are conserved, where buildings will not be allowed to exceed a height of 160 feet above sea level.
In an effort to ensure that property developments in Burma are properly monitored, the United Nations Human Resettlements Programme (UN-Habitat) has launched a series of workshops and training sessions in Kayin State. Another program in Yangon from December 12-16 covers issues related to water provision, urban drain connection system, and transportation.
The Kyaiktiyo Pagoda, located in Mon State, is one of Burma’s most sacred Buddhist pilgrimage sites. A gold-leafed boulder is perched on a cliff, held in place by a strand of Buddha’s hair. Pilgrims visiting the site number in the hundreds of thousands, and loud speakers have to be used from time to time to reunite people with their families. Pilgrim accommodations at one of the monasteries is rarely available; and as such, hotel rooms in the area are expensive.
Recently, authorities have banned mobile phones and cameras inside the precinct of the pagoda, and a metal detector has been installed.
Thank you for following our blog. We wish you and yours a blessed holiday season, and all the best for the coming year. See you again in 2014!