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YANGON, Myanmar – Every evening, more than a dozen men and women walk in a tight row in front of Myanmar's most revered Buddhist pagoda, sweeping the vast marble terrace in unison in hopes of keeping it clean for barefoot pilgrims.
To these volunteers, this is not a chore but a noble act — one they carry out eagerly in an effort to gain merit, or spiritual credit.
Situated on a hilltop in the old capital of Yangon, the 99-meter (326-foot) high Shwedagon draws hundreds of visitors every day.
With the opening up of the country following a half-century of dictatorship four years ago, American, French and Australian tourists are now among those flocking to the pagoda, built 2,600 years ago and said to enshrine eight strands of hair belonging to Buddha.
It is covered in gold plates with a main spire said to contain 4,531 diamonds, including a single 72-carat diamond at the top.
Some foreign tourists watch the sweepers with bemused expressions, at times mistaking the task as forced labor. That notion, in turn, bemuses the Buddhist broom-holders.
The Shwedagon is not just a place of faith and worship, but has also been the focal point of political activities.
Myanmar's independence hero Gen. Aung San gave a historic speech at the foot of Shwedagon before the country gained independence from Britain in 1948. His daughter Aung San Suu Kyi went to the pagoda to give her landmark speech at the peak of a nationwide pro-democracy uprising in 1988. And it was from the east gate of Shwedagon that hundreds of Buddhist monks started their prayer protests against the military regime in 2007.