Tale of a Golden Buddha

On May 30, local authorities in Burma's Arakan state discovered an astonishing trove of Buddhist religious art, consisting of nearly 40 Buddha statues from an old temple in the ancient city of Mrauk U in Arakan State, which fronts on the Bay of Bengal.

The discovery of the figurines, one of which turned out to be made of solid gold and, weighing 6.52 kg, led to a confrontation with the new government in Naypyidaw , which sought to remove the golden Buddha to the new capital. Arakan, also known as Rakhine, is dotted with untold numbers of Buddhist shrines, reportedly a result of a week-long visit by Gautama Buddha himself to the region. It would be a rare victory of villagers over an authoritarian central government.

When government officials sought to remove the golden statue to Naypyidaw, hundreds of locals descended on the monastery where the statue was kept to protest against its transfer. The protests only subsided when the authorities agreed to leave the statue where it is. A local archaeologist said that the statue dates back to the eighth century A.D.

Although the incident seemed minor, it reminded the Arakanese people of their loss of sovereignty to the Burmese majority over two centuries ago, when the Burmese king Bodawpeya moved their giant Maha Muni Buddha image to his capital in Mandalay in central Burma as a war trophy. That statue, 12 feet, seven inches tall and sitting on a seven-foot pedestal, is one of Burma's most important artifacts. It was removed to Mandalay after the collapse of the Dhanyawadi Kingdom in 1784.

The Maha Muni Buddha is a seated image in which the right hand touches the ground to call the earth to witness. It is completely covered by a thick layer of gold leaf which is applied every day by men – no women allowed – who climb a small side ladder to get to the image. It is regarded is having life and every day its face is washed and its teeth are cleaned.

As to the golden Buddha, "It is not important whether it is gold or not. This is a win for us." said a retired school teacher in the town. "This is Arakanese heritage, which we will defend with our life."

She said that the Burmese authorities often took away local historical artifacts, saying they intended to study the items, but they were never returned. The Arakan people often express resentment of Burmese majority rule and activists have often protested that their people are not benefiting from the billion-dollar oil and natural gas projects along the Arakan coast.

Dr. Aye Maung, the leader of an Arakan opposition party and an MP in the national Parliament, said that just as the British returned Burma's royal throne to its former colony after the country's independence, so also the return of the Maha Muni image to Arakan State would be a good token for Burma's national reconciliation process.

Although the return of the Burmese royal throne was regarded by some to be a British attempt to appease former Burmese dictator Ne Win, Aye Maung said, "The British did it because they have democracy. But with our country ruled by people with different ideas, it will be a long time before we get back our Maha Muni."

This is reprinted with additional reporting from The Irrawaddy, with which Asia Sentinel has a content-sharing agreement