As protestors gathered outside the Myanmar embassy in Tokyo on Saturday to call for the release of democracy icon Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, a 500-year-old pagoda close to the former capital Yangon collapsed.

More than 200 volunteers, mostly navy personnel, were undertaking renovation work at Danok pagoda, about 20 kilometres southwest of Yangon, when it suddenly sunk into the ground, leaving behind a mound of concrete, earth and scaffolding.

Many were buried under the rubble. By Saturday night about 40 survivors had been rescued, with at least five confirmed dead. The final total is likely to be far higher.

This was a tragic event but to most Myanmar the disaster is far more significant than the number of dead and injured would indicate.

Danok was not just any pagoda — the renovation work was being sponsored by the family of Senior General Than Shwe, the head of the military government.

Earlier in May, the state press paraded images of his wife, Daw Kyaing Kyaing, donating the diamond orb that traditionally sits on top of the pagoda.

One photo showed the entire family, including the reclusive Senior General, standing on scaffolding at the top of the 60-foot pagoda, attaching the hti, or “umbrella”, that holds the diamond in place.

The family and other government cronies then offered alms and religious objects to the monks; Daw Kyaing Kyaing planted a tree and released birds, which symbolises the act of saving lives.

It is common in predominantly-Buddhist Myanmar for the generals and their families to take part in these “merit-making” acts — after all, they have plenty of sins to make up for. Documenting these events is one of the primary functions of the state press.

Merit-making goes to the heart of Buddhism and is practiced by even the poorest segments of society here. Accrue a lot of merit over a lifetime and you’ll be reincarnated favourably; don’t accrue merit and you risk returning as a toad or some other lowly creature. Some even argue the concept helps to cement the rule of the present government; to achieve such a high standing in society today, the Senior General must have accrued a lot of merit in his past life.

Not surprisingly, there has been no mention of this tragedy in the state media — yesterday’s edition of the New Light of Myanmar ran a story about “World No-Tobacco Day-2009” on its front page. The obituaries that would normally follow such an event are also missing.

The military cannot control short-wave radio broadcasts, however, and news of Danok pagoda has spread rapidly. Not surprisingly, it is being interpreted as a rejection of Than Shwe’s family’s offering, implying that the sins of the generals are so great that no amount of merit-making will redeem them. It’s a bad omen that does not bode well for their future hold on power.

This reading is part superstition, part desperation. These are dark days for the democracy, or anti-government, movement in Myanmar. On Friday, a courtroom in Insein Prison will hear the closing arguments in the case against Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel peace laureate who has been under house arrest for a significant chunk of the last 20 years. She faces up to five years in prison for providing shelter to John William Yettaw, the 53-year-old US citizen who swam past security guards and into her lakeside compound in early May.

Yettaw, for his part, also brought a supernatural element to the saga. The devout Mormon told court last week that his visit was prompted by a vision from God, in which it was revealed to him Daw Aung San Suu Kyi would be assassinated by terrorists. He said he went to Myanmar to inform her and the government about the plot.

His visit has certainly been a godsend for the military government here, providing them with the perfect pretext to continue to lock up Daw Aung San Suu Kyi after her house arrest expired on May 27.

Early next week the presiding judge is expected to hand down the verdict and sentence. The result is likely to be a jail term or, at the least, a return to house arrest. The barricades around Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s property have disappeared, and nobody seems to be expecting her back anytime soon — certainly not before the military’s “free and fair” elections are held early next year.

The government’s mindset seems clear — she has (conveniently) committed a crime and will do the time. At the eighth Shangri-La Dialogue meeting in Singapore over the weekend, Deputy Defence Minister Major-General Aye Myint said the matter was “merely an internal affair” and accused Daw Aung San Suu Kyi of “a cover-up”.

“It is no doubt Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has committed a cover-up of the truth by her failure to report an illegal immigrant to the authorities concerned. Thus, there was no option but to open legal proceedings in accordance with the law,” he said.

The international community sees things slightly differently, and US Defense Secretary Robert Gates was vocal in his criticism over the weekend. Talks between the EU and ASEAN over a mooted free trade agreement have been put on hold, largely because of a dispute over whether to include Myanmar in the deal.

But General Aye Myint had stern words for the international community, warning it “should refrain from interfering in the international affairs of Myanmar that will affect the peace and security of the region”.

It seems that the military government has more important things on its plate right now, anyway. According to an AP report, the search is still continuing for the massive diamond that tumbled from the top of Danok pagoda on Saturday.