The Arakan ethnic minority in western Burma scored a big moral victory over the new government by successfully preventing national officials from taking an ancient gold Buddha image recently excavated in their region to Naypyidaw.
On May 30, local authorities discovered nearly 40 Buddha statues from an old temple in the ancient city of Mrauk U in Arakan State, one of which turned out to be made of gold and weighing 6.52 kg. A local archaeologist said that the statue dates back to the eighth century A.D.
When government officials prepared to bring the golden statue to Naypyidaw, hundreds of locals came to the monastery where the statue was kept and protested against its transfer. The protests only subsided after the authorities agreed that the statue will not be moved.
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 moved their giant Maha Muni Buddha image to his capital in central Burma as a war trophy.
The Maha Muni image is now a major religious landmark in Mandalay.
Following the protests on Saturday, the regional minister for cultural affairs said that the golden statue will be worshiped in the town, and many locals welcomed the news as a rare victory over the national government.
“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.
Arakan people often express resentment of Burman majority rule and Arakan 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 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 will be a good token for Burma's national reconciliation process.
Although the return of the Burmese royal throne was seen 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.”