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Myanmar Violence Spreads to Ancient Temples of Bagan

Myanmar Violence Spreads to Ancient Temples of Bagan


Police in Myanmar have opened fire on protesters in Bagan, the former ancient capital and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, bringing even more destruction to one of the world’s oldest religious centers.

Colonial historians of Burma (Mayanmar) traditionally claimed the earliest civilizations were founded under Indian influence around 500 AD. However, a NEWINT article says recent research indicates “that civilization in Burma s Irawaddy valley was present 3,500 years ago, farming rice, raising livestock and using bronze implements.” However, archaeological evidence suggests that early cultures existed in Burma as early as 11,000 BC. 

According to Richard M. Cooler in his 2002 book " The Art and Culture of Burma,” Burma's Stone Age was the “ Anyathian” that existed at a time thought to parallel the lower and middle Paleolithic in Europe. The Neolithic, or New Stone Age, is evidenced in Burma by three caves located near Taunggyi at the edge of the Shan plateau that are dated to 10000 to 6000 BC. Around 1500 BC alchemists began turning copper into bronze, agriculturalists developed different types of rice, and by 500 BC iron-working settlements emerged in an area south of present-day Mandalay.

Ancient temple in Bagan after sunset, Myanmar temples in the Bagan Archaeological Zone, Myanmar. Souce: Kalyakan / Adobe Stock

Ancient temple in Bagan after sunset, Myanmar temples in the Bagan Archaeological Zone, Myanmar. Souce: Kalyakan / Adobe Stock

Live Rounds Fired in a Spiritual Mecca

In the 4th century this ancient civilization adopted South India s Theravada style of Buddhism and today the country has the largest number of Buddhist monks as a percentage of the total population, at over 80%.

On Sunday night the Independent reported that in Myanmar s ancient former capital, Bagan, police “opened fire on demonstrators protesting last month s military takeover.” At least five people were reported to have been wounded in the Bagan protest, and dramatic bloody images have appeared on social media including bullet casings from what appear to be live rounds.

The city of Bagan is located in the central Mandalay region and is a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site. Bagan was the capital of the Kingdom of Pagan from the 9th to the 13th centuries and this kingdom was the first to unify the area that is now Myanmar, establishing the Burmese culture and ethnicity, as well as Theravada Buddhism in the region. According to  Go-Mayanmar during this period of rule, “over 10,000 temples were built on the plains surrounding the capital next to the Irrawaddy River.”

5,000 Years Of Temple Building

The Mongol invasions of Burma were a series of military conflicts between Kublai Khan's Yuan dynasty, division of the Mongol Empire, and the Pagan Empire that took place between 1277 and 1287 AD. At the end of the 13th century the city of Bagan finally collapsed and became a popular destination for Buddhist pilgrims and around 300 new temples were constructed between the 13th and 20th centuries. 

However, sustained earthquake damage over the years means that today less than 4,000 monuments remain in the city from the tens of thousands of shrines, temples and sacred spaces that were built over its 5,000 years of occupation. Now, this once famous tourist destination is hosting protest marches against the military s Feb. 1 seizure of power, and last night tensions turned to violence.

Thousands of protesters participate in an anti-military rally in Yangon, Myanmar (public domain)

Thousands of protesters participate in an anti-military rally in Yangon, Myanmar (public domain)

War In The City Of The Gods

According to the independent body Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, since the turn of 2021 large protests have occurred daily in Myanmar. At least 18 protesters were shot and killed on Feb. 28 and up to last Wednesday, according to the U.N. Human Rights Office. “more than 1,500 protesters have been arrested.” At the same time the police started firing on protester in Bagan, in the cities of Yangon and Mandalay, the police “fired warning shots, and variously employing tear gas, rubber bullets and stun grenades” according to the Independent.

Three weeks ago Aljazeera published a story about police in Naypyidaw shooting a 19-year-old woman in the head leaving her on life support. Many of the protesters are in their late teens and early twenties and one 23-year-old who was out protesting in Yangon, Myanmar s largest city, was “dressed in kimonos and carrying vulgar, humorous signs, including one mocking Senior General Min Aung Hlaing s height.” His fears?  The military will ruin everything for everybody but one percent of the population.

By Ashley Cowie

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Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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