Emma Larkin pays a visit:
While posing as a tourist to visit a monastery in Mandalay with a tour guide friend of mine (it is an incredible thing that the regime feels confident enough about its control on people and information to still allow tourists into some monasteries), my friend pointed out “new” monks with freshly-shaved heads government spies, he warned.
On the morning I left Burma, I went to visit the Shwedagon pagoda, the country’s holiest site. Armed soldiers wearing flak jackets and helmets guarded each of the four stairways leading up to the pagoda. Heavy monsoon clouds hovered above the golden spire and the rain-wet marble platform was cool and slippery beneath my bare feet. I exited down the eastern stairway, an area that had been a rallying point during the protests. The stairwell and street, normally filled with vendors selling religious items (gold leaf, candles, garlands of fresh flowers), were mostly deserted. As I hailed a passing cab to take me back to my hotel, I noticed a statue of the Buddha on the fence surrounding a monastery. Whether it had been put there on purpose as some kind of secret symbol or had been there long before recent events, I’ll never know, but it seemed particularly poignant; the statue was broken and the image of the Buddha was headless, as if it had been decapitated.