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.
The relative absence of monks from the protests, particularly in the first weeks after the coup, has not matched the broader mood in Myanmar. Millions marched in the streets after Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the army chief, ordered the jailing of elected leaders. Even today, as security forces shoot protesters on sight and the coronavirus rips through the country, pockets of democratic rebellion have endured.
For centuries, Myanmar’s monks have taken bold political stands, from hunger strikes demanding independence from Britain to street protests against the army’s rule in 2007. And though the government-run national clerical council mostly capitulated to the new order imposed in February, some monks have 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. Spoiled rice was delivered in the morning in a plastic bag, which he had to use for other purposes because there was no toilet.
“The military is a demonic force that uses Buddhism for political purposes to build power,” Mr. Mani Sara said.
The Tatmadaw, as the military is known, has always used lavish displays of religiosity to legitimize its rule. On the day after the February coup, General Min Aung Hlaing, the leader of the putsch, prostrated himself at the feet of a senior Buddhist abbot.
The image of the general and the monk, which appeared in state media outlets, carried a clear message: In a deeply devout country, the army takeover 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 in Mandalay.
General Min Aung Hlaing, who has ordered multiple pogroms against religious minorities, has deliberately fused faith to flag. His army has instructed Buddhists that protecting the religion is a national duty, and that the Tatmadaw is the country’s ultimate spiritual guardian.
When an army-led campaign of atrocities drove more than three-quarters of a million Rohingya Muslims into neighboring Bangladesh in 2017, monks were among the fiercest champions of the violence, echoing the military’s baseless claims that Buddhism was being threatened by a resurgent Islam. The public largely supported the deadly campaign, which the United States has described as ethnic cleansing.
But the junta’s sectarian justifications for its coup — that the civilian government led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was in cahoots with oil-rich Muslim nations to degrade Buddhism — have not gained such widespread acceptance. And some monks, far from supporting the generals, have disrobed to join the armed People’s Defense Force, which is aligned with a self-declared opposition government formed from remnants of the ousted civilian leadership 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 Force this summer. “I have traded the monkhood for manhood.”
In 2007, tens of thousands of monks marched, some with their begging bowls upturned to symbolize their discontent with military rule. With the clergy leading the way, hundreds of thousands of laypeople joined the protests.
The military responded by shooting pro-democracy protesters who had gathered in the shadow of a golden pagoda. Dozens of monasteries were ordered shut. Public sentiment hardened against the generals, and the military eventually fashioned a power-sharing agreement with Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party, whose second landslide victory at the polls, in November, was followed by the February coup.
This time around, many Buddhist institutions have stayed silent as the military has cracked down on dissent, though a vocal minority of monks participating in the flash protests have had their actions amplified on social media.
The state religious council, which depends on official funding, has largely toed the line. Nationalist monks have echoed the military’s criticism of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s government, accusing her of betraying Buddhism to Islam (even though, while in office, she defended the military’s persecution of Rohingya Muslims).
“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.”