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Politicians, legal experts and historians have said the highly publicised recovery attempt of the Dhammazedi Bell that ended fruitless was a national shenanigan and organisers should be charged with fraud.
The National League for Democracy (NLD) party’s lower house MP Khin San Hlaing said the public felt cheated by San Linn, describing the incident as a “national shenanigan.” She said that San Linn had given the public false hope and even suggested that he should be charged with fraud.
“The mission was endorsed by the [regional authorities] in hopes of recovering a national artefact and granted official assistance, including police security. The [organisers] then claimed they had found the bell, giving false hope to the public, who now feels cheated,” said Khin San Hlaing.
“As of today, the government has not taken any action on those who are responsible for the mission – as it was commissioned as a subject of national interest, it can be deemed as a national shenanigan.”
In August this year, retired decorated Burma Navy officer San Linn launched a mission to search for the fabled Great Bell of Dhammazedi which, according to legend, was lost in the Rangoon River in the early 17th century.
The mission to recover the lost Dhammazedi bell, endorsed by Rangoon authorities and San Linn, brought together a team of experts including Buddhist monk Natsin Tayar Sayadaw, who is rumoured to have clairvoyant powers.
The mission drew widespread public attention, attracting spectators and reporters to the search site at the confluence of the Rangoon and Pegu Rivers, where San Linn claimed the bell was being protected underwater by the mythical Nāgá dragon-like river spirit.
On 26 August, San Linn announced that the bell—or at least, an object he assumed to be the bell—had been found on the riverbed. The public was thrilled with excitement but was soon left disappointed after it became apparent that nothing had been recovered. The mission was eventually called off in September after over a month of fruitless efforts.
Legal experts said it was obvious that San Linn had intentionally lied to the public and that his actions could make him liable for “cheating” under Burma’s Penal Code.
“Making false, exaggerated claims and intentionally deceiving the public, if there is money involved, can be actionable as “cheating” under Penal Code Article 415, a crime which carries a maximum punishment of one year’s imprisonment [plus a fine, or both]. He could also be charged with fraud under Article 420, which is a more serious type of “cheating” that carries a maximum punishment of seven years in prison [plus a possible fine],” said Kyee Myint, secretary of the Myanmar Lawyers Network.
Historian Bhone Tint Kyaw urged Burma’s Home Affairs Ministry to undertake effective legal action against San Linn for fabricating stories about the important historical and religious object.
“The bell is a significant part of Burma’s history and religion. The government has previously taken action against those who spread lies related to religion,” said Bhone Tint Kyaw.
“In order to prevent this kind of publicity stunt in the future, I think that government authorities should investigate the matter and see that effective legal action is taken.”
The Dhammazedi Bell is thought to have been cast in 1484 and was reputed to be the largest bell in the world, weighing 270 tons. According to legend, it was lost in the river when Portuguese mercenary Filipe de Brito—who had drawn the ire of Burmese forces after declaring himself ruler of the major port of Syriam—removed it from Shwe Dagon Pagoda and attempted to transport it across the river.
Legend has it that de Brito intended to melt down the bell to make cannons in order to fend off a Burmese offensive in 1606. Syriam was a major port near present-day Rangoon. The port town’s name was later changed to Thanlyin and today the area is being developed into the Thilawa Special Economic Zone and port.