Did the Myanmar junta build the ‘world’s biggest Buddha statue’ to whitewash its crimes?

Maravijaya Buddha Statue

Workers doing finishing touches ahead of the unveiling of the Maravijaya Buddha Statue in Myanmar's capital. Screenshot from YouTube video of banned independent media outlet MizzimaTV.

Myanmar’s military regime unveiled a large Maravijaya Buddha statue in a massive religious ceremony, which critics describe as an attempt to distract from the junta’s brutal leadership.

The military grabbed power in February 2021 and immediately waged a violent crackdown on opposition forces and critics. But more than two years later, resistance has intensified as the junta struggles to gain legitimacy and international recognition.

On August 1, junta leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing unveiled the Maravijaya Buddha statue in the nation’s capital, Naypyitaw. State media called it “the world’s highest sitting marble Buddha Image.”

Maravijaya means conquering Mara, which is similar to Satan in Buddhism. It is “the Buddha who overcomes the devil's interference.” It contains numerous symbols related to the number nine, which is considered special in Burmese numerology. This explains why the statue weighs 5,292 tons, since the individual digits add up to two nines. The throne height is 18 feet (again, two nines), and the statue’s height is 63 feet (which also adds up to the number nine).

State media quotes the junta leader who spoke about the significance of building the statue:

[The statue] aims to show flourishing of Theravada Buddhism in Myanmar, for Myanmar to be a focal point of Theravada Buddhism, ensure prosperity of the State and contribute to peace and stability of the world.

The junta spent MMK 58 billion (USS 27.6 million) on the project. It acquired soil from seven holy places of Buddhism in India and famous pagodas across Myanmar. The ordination hall can accommodate 900 members of the Sangha [Buddhist community] and 1,200 laypersons during religious ceremonies. Authorities say the statue is made of durable materials that can endure the impact of up to 120 mph storm or 8.8 intensity earthquake.

Critics note that the junta is repeating what previous military dictatorships have done in showing devotion to Buddhism while trying to undermine pro-democracy forces. In 1986, former junta leader General Ne Win consecrated the Maha Wizaya Pagoda, which means extraordinary success. In 2002, Senior Gen. Than Shwe led ceremonies for the consecration of a marble Buddha statue known as the Loka Chantha Abhaya Labha Muni in Yangon.

In an interview with Than Lwin Times, renowned monk Sayadaw Min Thon Nya rebuked the junta for building pagodas amid the suffering of ordinary Myanmar citizens.

While people are experiencing hardships and great grief, building stupas, pagoda and image is not the teaching of Buddha. It is just for showing off. Buddha preferred practicing his teachings, rather than looking at his impermanent body. Practicing his Dhamma is the genuine worship to the Buddha.

Buddha taught that Dhamma should be replied on through practices. So, the military’s building religious edifices is just to cover their crimes. Their works are against Buddha’s teachings.

The Irrawaddy, a banned independent media company, pointed out the irony of building a large Buddha statue while the majority are suffering under a dictatorship:

There is a terrible irony in the regime leaders’ building the tallest Buddha image to show that they are the defenders of the faith in Buddhist-majority Myanmar; the country’s people feel they are the smallest, most defenseless and least protected people in this part of the world.

Radio Free Asia, which is funded by the United States government, interviewed some residents about their observations regarding the statue.

What I am sure of is that no civilians who aren’t government employees joined the ceremony. Only [junta] employees who were forced to join went there. The military even arranged transportation for them.

Another resident said they would not visit the site.

What we see is that the junta is using a lot of money and manpower in building the statue to make it more famous than previous pagodas. I have no plans to visit, as it was built by the blood-stained hands of the military dictator.

Entrance to the venue is free until the end of August. Authorities said charging fees is necessary since “no more architectural masterpieces from Maravijaya Buddha Image can be found anywhere, maintenance tasks must be undertaken for the image in detail.”

The decision to collect fees drew ridicule from the public since the new pagoda would be the only holy site in the country where pilgrims are required to pay.

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