Myanmar monks, leaders of past protests, divided over coup

Day after day, despite a raging pandemic and the threat of sniper bullets, a small group of Buddhist monks in burgundy robes gather in t...


Day after day, despite a raging pandemic and the threat of sniper bullets, a small group of Buddhist monks in burgundy robes gather in the town of Mandalay in Myanmar. Their acts of dissent last only a few minutes, hasty candlelight vigils or lightning demonstrations in the shade of a monastery with golden eaves.

The demands of clergymen are high: men in uniform, men who protest a little too loudly that they are pious Buddhists, must quit politics. The military ruled Myanmar for nearly 60 years, most recently by organize a coup against an elected government and killing over a thousand people for daring to oppose his takeover.

“In the future, there should be no dictatorship at all,” read on Monday a sign held in the air by a monk.

In a predominantly Buddhist nation where monks are seen as the supreme moral authority, political chaos since the February 1 coup has exposed deep divisions within Myanmar’s clergy. While a minority of monks openly joined the protest movement and hundreds were imprisoned for it, clerics did not take on the leadership role they were known for in past resistance to the army. Some prominent monks even gave their blessings to generals.

This split in the monastic community, say Buddhist clerics, is in part due to the army’s assiduous courting of influential monks, luring them with gifts and promises that soldiers, more than civilian leaders, are the real ones. defenders of the faith. Tougher tactics have also been used to discourage monks from protesting, as armed security forces occupy monasteries – potential centers of resistance – and order clerics to return home, citing the coronavirus pandemic.

The relative absence of monks in the protests, especially in the first weeks after the coup, did not match the general mood in Myanmar. Millions of people marched through the streets after Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the army chief, ordered the imprisonment of the elected leaders. Even today, as security forces shoot protesters on sight and the coronavirus ravages the country, pockets of democratic rebellion persisted.

For centuries, Myanmar monks have taken bold political positions, from hunger strikes demanding independence from Britain to street protests against the army regime in 2007. And although the government-run National Clerical Council mostly surrendered to the new order imposed in February, some monks defied it.

U Mani Sara, a monk from Mandalay, spent a month in prison for attending anti-military rallies earlier this year. On the way to his cell, he was forced to jump like a frog for hours, he said. The spoiled rice was delivered in the morning in a plastic bag, which he had to use for other purposes as there was no toilet.

“The army is a demonic force which uses Buddhism for political ends to strengthen its power,” said Mr. Mani Sara.

The Tatmadaw, as the military is called, has always used lavish displays of religiosity to legitimize its rule. In the aftermath of the February coup, General Min Aung Hlaing, leader of the coup, bowed down at the feet of a high Buddhist abbot.

The image of the general and the monk, which appeared in state media, carried a clear message: In a deeply pious country, the takeover of the army had been sanctified by a higher authority.

“The military is one of the main culprits in tarnishing the image of Buddhism in Myanmar,” said U Ariyawuntha, an abbot from Mandalay.

General Min Aung Hlaing, who has ordered multiple pogroms against religious minorities, has deliberately fused the faith to report. His army has instructed Buddhists that protecting religion is a national duty and that the Tatmadaw is the ultimate spiritual guardian of the country.

When an army-led campaign of atrocities drove more than three-quarters of a million Rohingya Muslims to neighboring Bangladesh in 2017, the monks were among the fiercest champions of the violence, echoing the baseless claims of the army that Buddhism was threatened by a resurgent Islam. The public widely supported the murderous campaign, which the United States has called ethnic cleansing.

But the junta’s sectarian justifications for its coup – that the civilian government led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi colluded with oil-rich Muslim nations to degrade Buddhism – have not been so widely accepted. And some monks, far from supporting the generals, took off their clothes to join the armies People’s Defense Force, which aligns with a self-proclaimed opposition government formed from the remnants of fallen civilian leaders and representatives of ethnic, religious and civil society groups.

“I will be a soldier until we get democracy,” said Bo Thaid Dhi, who was a monk until he began training with the People’s Defense Forces this summer. “I traded the life of a monk for manhood.”

In 2007, tens of thousands of monks marched, some with their begging bowls overturned to symbolize their discontent with the military regime. With the clergy in the lead, hundreds of thousands of lay people joined the protests.

The army responded by shooting at pro-democracy protesters who had gathered in the shade of a golden pagoda. Dozens of monasteries have been ordered to close. Public opinion hardened against the generals, and the military finally struck a power-sharing deal with Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party, whose second crushing victory at the polls, in November, was followed by the February coup.

This time around, many Buddhist institutions have remained silent as the military clamped down on dissent, although a minority of monks participating in the flash protests have seen their actions amplified on social media.

The state’s religious council, which depends on official funding, has largely followed the line. Nationalist monks echoed the army’s criticism of Aung San Suu Kyi’s government, accusing it of betraying Buddhism towards Islam (although during her tenure she defended the military persecution of Rohingya Muslims).

“Only pessimists or dissidents accused Chief General Min Aung Hlaing of using Buddhism to gain power,” said monk U Su Citta Sara, spokesperson for the Committee for the Protection of Nationality and Human Rights. religion, or Ma Ba Tha, which preaches against mixing. with Muslims. “The people who were killed by the military in the streets during the protests may not be really innocent. “

The monks associated with Ma Ba Tha receive financial support from the generals of Tatmadaw. They visited razed Rohingya villages and offered their blessing to Buddhist civilians who took part in the bloodshed.

“After 2007, the army understood the strength of the monks and tried to create Ma Ba Tha to create divisions between the monks using Islam, which is why fewer monks are involved in the 2021 revolution,” he said. said U Par Kata, another monk who fled to the area where the People’s Defense Force conducted training. “The monks who support the army and the coup are not only destroying the country, they are also destroying Buddhism. “

After the coup, the nation’s most respected monk, Ashin Nyanissara, known more commonly as Sitagu Sayadaw, remained silent when security forces shot and killed unarmed protesters and child spectators look alike. He allowed the men in uniform to pray at his feet. Weeks later, he urged the junta to stop killing peaceful protesters.

Sitagu Sayadaw has monastic outposts in the United States and heads theological universities. As the army’s campaign of massacres, mass rapes and arson attacks against the Rohingya escalated, he delivered a sermon to military officers that provided religious justification for killing non-Buddhists. The military and the monks cannot be divided, he said.

When General Min Aung Hlaing visited Moscow to purchase weapons in 2018 and 2019, Sitagu Sayadaw accompanied him. When the general, now Myanmar’s self-proclaimed prime minister, returned to Russia in June to purchase other weapons, he attended a ceremony at a temple complex that Sitagu Sayadaw had blessed on one of their previous trips.

Sayadaw Bhatanda Kavisara, the abbot of a monastery near Naypyidaw, the army-built capital, is another chief monk who remained silent as soldiers killed protesters. It was at his feet that General Min Aung Hlaing prayed in the aftermath of the coup.

In June, a military plane carrying Sayadaw Bhatanda Kavisara, army officers and some of its wealthy donors crashed in bad weather, killing almost everyone on board. His ornate funeral, attended by General Min Aung Hlaing, made headlines in the state newspapers. Some Buddhists who oppose the coup have said they saw something akin to karmic retribution in the abbot’s death.

Another abbot, U Kay Tha Ya, who until the beginning of the year ran a monastery in Yangon, the country’s largest city, has taken a very different path.

When police tried to arrest him for joining the protests, Mr. Kay Tha Ya fled to part of Myanmar controlled by ethnic rebels, where he abandoned his robes. Since then, he said, he has killed two soldiers as a member of the People’s Defense Forces.

“As a monk, I couldn’t kill them, so I decided to become a soldier,” he said. “It’s like coming down from heaven to hell. But I think it was necessary.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Myanmar monks, leaders of past protests, divided over coup
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