In Mayangon township in the Burmese capital of Rangoon, workers are putting the final touches on the Tooth Relic Pagoda, whose golden spire will join countless others that dot the landscape in this fervently Buddhist country.
The presence of several dozen soldiers, however, attests to the special nature of this project: Burma's military government, known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), has backed the construction of the pagoda as a public display of its piety. SLORC chief Lt. Gen. Khin Nyunt chairs the construction committee and visits the site to supervise work.
The contributions of military officials to this pagoda - which will hold a tooth said to have belonged to the Buddha - and other pagoda projects are recounted almost daily in Burma's state-controlled press.
Since its bloody crackdown against prodemocracy demonstrations in 1988 and the annulment of elections in 1990 in which the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) won by a landslide, the military has sought to secure the consent of Burma's estimated 200,000 monks for its rule. The monks, who played a key role in supporting the prodemocracy movement, have been cajoled with a combination of SLORC's public display of devotion to Buddhism as well as the traditional iron fist of repression.
Few believe that the government's dedication to pagoda-building is altruistic. In Burma, religion and politics have long been intertwined. Under the Buddhist practice of Patta Nikujjana Kan, monks in the past would show their disgust with oppressive kings by refusing to accept offerings of food and clothing from the monarchs or performing services on their behalf. Burmese today still recount the story of King Tho Han Bwa, who killed more than 300 monks in 888 AD after they urged him to change his ways and was subsequently overthrown by his angry subjects.