The Pagan Empire began to disintegrate in 1277 with its ignominious defeat at the hands of Kublai Khan’s army at Ngasaungsyan, near the Chinese border 400 miles to the north. When the Burmese refused to pay tribute to the Mongol ruler, Khan sent his 12,000-horse cavalry to invade their kingdom. Marco Polo, traveling with the Mongols, wrote of the bloody debacle in which Pagan’s soldiers, on foot and atop elephants, were lured into a forest and slaughtered. Though scholars debate whether the Mongols ever occupied the city, most agree that by the end of the 13th century, religious zeal had gotten the best of the Pagan kings. By spending so much money on temples and turning so much land over to a tax-exempt religious order, they had bankrupted the country.
Pagan went into gradual decline. The monasteries were open, and pilgrims journeyed there, but the temples were neglected, and plundered by treasure hunters who eviscerated statues and dug into stupa bases searching for precious stones. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, a wave of Europeans removed sculptures and carvings to museums in Berlin and other cities.
Burma became a British colony in the late 1880s but regained its independence in 1948. Then followed more than a decade of civil turmoil when a weak democracy broke into factions, which fought back and forth for control of the government. The nation has been ruled for the past 40 years by a series of uncompromising military dictators. When Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition party, the National League for Democracy, won 80 percent of the vote in 1990 in elections ordered by the junta to quell major civil unrest and to gain international legitimacy, the government annulled the result and imprisoned Suu Kyi and hundreds of dissidents. Since her release eight months ago (because of pressure from the U.S. government, the European Union, Burmese dissidents living abroad and international human rights organizations), the junta has freed more that 300 political prisoners, though more than 1,000 opponents of the regime remain in jail. The junta has permitted 50 National League offices to open, and Suu Kyi has been allowed limited travel to rally support for democratic reform. Nonetheless, according to Human Rights Watch, severe political repression, torture, forced labor and the drafting of children into the army remain. In an October report on religious freedom, the State Department excoriated Burma for its ardent persecution of Muslims and other minorities.
Although Suu Kyi continues to insist that U.S. sanctions be maintained, she is encouraging targeted humanitarian assistance. Along these lines, the U.S. Agency for International Development is sponsoring a $1 million program to fight HIV/AIDS in Burma, an epidemic ravaging the population. But tourists, Suu Kyi says, should boycott the country until the military rulers demonstrate tangible progress on democratic reform. However, even some members of her own party disagree, pointing out that the money that goes toward guest houses, restaurants, tour guides, drivers and local artisans generates desperately needed income in a country where many families live on $5 a day. “If the tourists don’t come, women in textile factories will lose their jobs,” Ma Thanegi, a journalist and former aide to Suu Kyi, told the New York Times recently. “They are the ones who suffer, not the generals.”
Others contend that encouraging tourism could reduce Burma’s dependency on the deeply entrenched opium trade and the rampant logging that is rapidly deforesting the once lush woodlands. However misguided, the government’s current race to restore temples is part of a broader campaign to exploit Pagan’s tourism potential. In the meantime, local residents and pilgrims continue to use the temples as they always have, for quiet meditation and worship, and as communal parks.