BANGKOK — It cannot have pleased Myanmar’s ruling family: the collapse of a 2,300-year-old gold-domed pagoda into a pile of timbers just three weeks after the wife of the junta’s top general had helped reconsecrate it with a diamond orb and a sacred golden umbrella.
A rescue worker looks through the rubble of the ancient Danok pagoda, which collapsed last Saturday as workmen were completing its renovation — killing at least 20 people, according to émigré reports.
There is no country in Asia more superstitious than Myanmar, and the collapse of the temple was widely seen as something more portentous than shoddy construction work.
It comes at a moment when the junta has put on trial the country’s pro-democracy leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, after an American intruder swam across a lake and spent a night at the villa where she has been under house arrest for most of the past 19 years.
After two weeks of testimony, the trial is on hold as the junta apparently tries to decide how to manage what seems to have been a major blunder, drawing condemnation from around the world.
The superstitious generals may be consulting astrologers as well as political tacticians as they decide how to proceed. That would not be unusual for many people in Myanmar.
Currency denominations and traffic rules have been changed in the past, the nation’s capital has been moved and the timing of events has been selected — even the dates of popular uprisings — with astrological dictates in mind.
“Astrology has as significant a role in policies, leadership and decision making in the feudal Naypyidaw as rational calculations, geopolitics and resource economics,” said Zarni, a Burmese exile analyst and researcher who goes by one name. He was referring to the country’s new capital, which was opened in 2005.
And so it seemed only natural to read a darker meaning into the temple collapse.
The Danok pagoda, on the outskirts of Myanmar’s main city, Yangon, was blessed May 7 in the presence of Daw Kyaing Kyaing, the wife of the country’s supreme leader, Senior Gen. Than Shwe. The event received major coverage in the government-controlled press.
In a solemn ceremony, the worshipers fixed the diamond orb to the top of the pagoda along with a pennant-shaped vane and sprinkled scented water onto the tiers of a holy umbrella, according to the government mouthpiece, The New Light of Myanmar.
Like the rest of the heavily censored press, the newspaper was silent, a week ago, when it all came crashing down. But word of mouth — and foreign radio broadcasts — spread fast in Myanmar.
“O.K., she thinks she is so great, but even the gods don’t like her, people believe like that,” a senior astrologer said on condition of anonymity because of the danger of speaking to the media.
The ceremony was part of a decades-long campaign by the senior general to legitimize military rule on a foundation of Buddhist fealty, dedicating and re-gilding temples, attending religious ceremonies and making donations to monks.
That campaign was undermined, and perhaps fatally discredited, in September 2007 when soldiers beat and shot protesting monks in the streets, invaded monasteries without removing their boots and imprisoned hundreds of monks.
“No matter how many pagodas they build, no matter how much charity they give to monks, it is still they who murdered the monks,” said Josef Silverstein, a Myanmar specialist and emeritus professor at Rutgers University, at the time of the protests.
So when the Danok pagoda suddenly collapsed last Saturday as workmen were completing its renovation — killing at least 20 people, according to émigré reports — many people saw it as the latest of a series of bad omens for the junta that included a devastating cyclone early last year.
Its sacred umbrella tumbled to the ground and its diamond orb was lost in the rubble, according to those reports.
“The fact that the umbrella did not stay was a sign that more bad things are to come, according to astrologers,” said Ingrid Jordt, an anthropology professor at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee and a specialist on Burma.
“It is also a sign that Than Shwe does not have the spiritual power any longer to be able to undertake or reap the benefit from good acts such as this,” she said in an e-mail message. “In a sense, the pagoda repudiated Than Shwe’s right to remain ruler.”
As laborers began trying to put the pagoda back together, local residents were quoted in émigré publications with vivid accounts of supernatural happenings.
“The temple collapsed about 3:10 p.m. while I was loading bricks on a platform around the pagoda,” a 24-year-old construction worker told The Irrawaddy, a magazine based in Thailand.
“The weather suddenly turned very dark,” he was quoted as saying. “Then we saw a bright red light rising from the northern end of the pagoda. Then, suddenly, the temple collapsed. I also heard a strange haunting voice coming from the direction of the light.”
Indeed, the Danok pagoda may have been a poor choice for the junta’s ruling family to seek religious affirmation.
According to The Irrawaddy: “Several elderly locals from Danok Model Village said that they believed that the pagoda never welcomed cruel or unkind donors, and always shook when such persons made offerings.”