Myanmar’s Monks, Leaders of Past Protests, Are Divided Over the Coup

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Day after day, despite a raging pandemic and the threat of snipers’ bullets, a small band of Buddhist monks in burgundy robes gathers in the city of Mandalay in Myanmar. Their acts of dissent last only a few minutes, hasty candlelight vigils or flash-mob protests in the shadow of a monastery with gilded eaves.

The clerics’ demand is lofty: men in uniform, men who protest a bit too loudly that they are pious Buddhists, must exit politics. The military has dominated Myanmar for the better part of 60 years, most recently by staging a coup against an elected government and killing more than a thousand people for daring to oppose its power grab.

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

In an overwhelmingly Buddhist nation where monks are seen as the supreme moral authority, the political chaos since the Feb. 1 coup has laid bare deep divisions within Myanmar’s clergy. While a minority of monks have openly joined the protest movement, and hundreds have been imprisoned for it, clerics have not taken the leadership role that they were known for in past bouts of resistance to the military. Some prominent monks have even given the generals their blessing.

This split in the monastic community, Buddhist clerics say, is partly due to the military’s assiduous courting of influential monks, luring them with donations and promises that soldiers, more than civilian leaders, are the true defenders of the faith. Harder-edged tactics have also been used to discourage monks from protesting, as armed security forces occupy monasteries — potential centers for resistance — and order clerics to return home, citing the coronavirus pandemic.

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

Monks associated with Ma Ba Tha receive financial support from Tatmadaw generals. They have toured razed Rohingya villages and offered benediction to Buddhist civilians who took part in the bloodshed.

“After 2007, the military understood the strength of monks and tried to create Ma Ba Tha to create divisions between monks using Islam, so that is why fewer monks are involved in the 2021 revolution,” said U Par Kata, another monk who escaped to the area where the People’s Defense Force has conducted training. “Monks who support the military and 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, was silent as security forces shot and killed unarmed demonstrators and child bystanders alike. He allowed men in uniform to pray at his feet. Only weeks later did he urge the junta to stop killing peaceful protesters.

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

When General Min Aung Hlaing went to Moscow on arms-buying trips in 2018 and 2019, Sitagu Sayadaw accompanied him. When the general, now Myanmar’s self-appointed prime minister, returned to Russia in June for more weapons procurement, he attended a ceremony at a temple complex that Sitagu Sayadaw had blessed on one of their earlier trips.

Another chief monk who stayed silent while soldiers killed protesters was Sayadaw Bhatanda Kavisara, the abbot of a monastery near Naypyidaw, the military-built capital. It was at his feet that General Min Aung Hlaing prayed on the day after the coup.

In June, a military plane carrying Sayadaw Bhatanda Kavisara, army officers and some of his wealthy donors crashed in bad weather, killing nearly everyone on board. His ornate funeral, attended by General Min Aung Hlaing, was front-page news in state newspapers. Some Buddhists who oppose the coup said they saw something close to karmic retribution in the abbot’s death.

A very different path was taken by another abbot, U Kay Tha Ya, who until earlier this year led a monastery in Yangon, the nation’s biggest city.

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

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

Author: desi123

Desi123.com is an online news portal that aims to provide the latest trendy news for Asians living in Asia and around the World.

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