The Buddhist clergy backing Myanmar’s junta By Reuters


© Reuters. An undated handout image reveals Wathawa, a pro-junta monk, addressing crowds. Chindwin Information Company/Handout by way of REUTERS


By Thu Thu Aung and Poppy McPherson

(Reuters) – In a monastery in central Myanmar, a Buddhist monk, Wathawa, rallies his militia with a cry: “What’s our spirit like?”

    “The spirit of iron!” shout a gaggle of rifle-bearing males, loyalists of the navy junta that seized energy final yr, now preventing to crush fledgling pro-democracy teams.

    The scene, from a video posted on-line by army-linked media, would have appeared unimaginable to earlier generations within the overwhelmingly Buddhist nation. Now, it underscores the shut alliance the navy has cast with the Buddhist hierarchy.

    Myanmar’s Buddhist clergy beforehand sought to topple successive navy dictatorships that saved residents impoverished and remoted. Monks have been a part of the 1988 rebellion that introduced Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to prominence. 1000’s thronged the streets throughout 2007 anti-government protests generally known as the Saffron Revolution.

Many at the moment are supporters of the brand new junta.

The change displays a years-long effort by the navy to construct stronger ties with Buddhist leaders by lavishing them with items and cultivating a shared ultranationalist and sometimes Islamophobic imaginative and prescient, based on 11 individuals accustomed to the monastic system, together with three present or former monks and 4 researchers. Three spoke on the situation of anonymity for concern of navy reprisals.

Lately, ultranationalist monks incited violence towards Muslims in Myanmar, together with riots that killed 25 individuals in 2013 and army-led assaults towards the Rohingya minority.

    As the brand new junta suppresses opponents, spiritual leaders have been largely absent from the widespread resistance to final yr’s military coup, which ended the decade-long democratic experiment that introduced Suu Kyi to energy.

    Some monks, like Wathawa, who claims to have 1000’s of armed followers, are serving to rally militia fighters towards armed pro-democracy teams that emerged after the navy crushed peaceable protests with lethal power.

    Troops have burned greater than 100 villages and killed civilians in assaults the United Nations has referred to as possible battle crimes and crimes towards humanity.

    In public feedback and state media broadcasts as lately as November, the navy has acknowledged forming militia in some villages “based mostly on their calls for”, however has denied arming monks. It denies focusing on civilians, saying its operations are towards “terrorists”. A navy spokesman didn’t reply to Reuters’ requests for remark about its relationship with the militia.


Wathawa and different ultranationalist monks have appeared marching alongside troopers, carrying weapons, in photographs printed by native media and verified by means of open-source investigation by UK-based monitoring group Myanmar Witness, which additionally geolocated militia coaching taking place at his monastery in Kantbalu, in central Myanmar.

Wathawa, who like many monks goes by one title, confirmed his management of militia fighters in a cellphone interview with Reuters, calling resistance forces “a bunch of thugs”.

He stated he based the militia, which operates out of Kantbalu, to stabilize the area and defend locals. Accusing resistance forces of killing civilians, together with monks, and “doing nothing however damaging issues”, he stated, “I’m doing what I can. It’s not improper that I based the militia.”

Professional-democracy forces acknowledge killing suspected navy informants, however deny focusing on civilians.

“There isn’t any assure for our lives,” Wathawa stated. “Although I am speaking to you immediately, tomorrow may be the day I die.”

Not all the nation’s a number of hundred thousand monks help the junta. Nearly each week, dozens collect to protest in monasteries within the Buddhist heartland of Mandalay, regardless of surveillance and crackdowns. A number of disrobed and joined armed resistance teams.

Htavara, a monk who led Saffron Revolution protests and now lives in exile in Norway, stated monks who participated within the violence towards the junta’s opponents have been violating the primary principle of their faith. 

   “Killing residing issues is an unforgivable crime in Buddhism,” he stated.

The nation’s high Buddhist authority, generally known as the Ma Ha Na, has been silent on the disaster. Its chairman met with military chief Min Aung Hlaing shortly after the coup. The group didn’t reply to a request for remark about militant monks and whether or not it supported the junta.

Among the many commemorated spiritual leaders loudly backing the junta is Sitagu, a as soon as beloved determine who took half within the 1988 rebellion. Now he’s a daily companion of Min Aung Hlaing, whom he calls “benevolent king”, flying with him to Russia. Throughout the navy’s 2017 expulsion of the Rohingya, he justified the killing of non-Buddhists in a sermon that asserted their lives have been price much less.

    In a single latest video from a visit to Russia — President Vladimir Putin is among the junta chief’s few remaining allies — Sitagu will be seen beating drums alongside Russian monks and chanting, “Peace and glory to the nice nation of Russia”.

In a message to Reuters, Sitagu stated he was “deeply saddened by the present scenario in Myanmar, particularly by the difficulties that persons are dealing with”. He stated he didn’t favour “any events” and that it was his want that “the individuals and the nation prosper”.

Russian International Minister Sergei Lavrov, on a go to to Myanmar in August, stated he backed the navy’s makes an attempt to “stabilize” the nation. In an emailed response to Reuters, Russia’s embassy in Myanmar supplied particulars of Sitagu’s journey and stated Russia-Myanmar ties have been “deepening in lots of instructions” together with commerce, funding, training and power. “This may profit the peoples of the 2 nations in the long term,” it stated.

    The shows of bellicosity by some monks have led to a uncommon backlash in Myanmar. On-line memes and expletive-filled posts towards military-supporting monks at the moment are widespread.

Ten individuals interviewed by Reuters in cities together with Yangon and Mandalay, amongst them a grocery retailer proprietor and a director of commercials, stated they’d modified the way in which they donated to monks. Some have been scrutinizing monks extra carefully to keep away from aiding those who help the junta, whereas others had eschewed the centuries-old custom utterly.

“It’s the begin of the change,” stated Naung Naung, a pupil from the central Magwe area, referring to the rising willingness of Myanmar residents to query the spiritual institution.

    Till lately, everybody within the nation acknowledged “dictators as dictators”, stated one monk from Kantbalu, the identical hometown as Wathawa. “Individuals and monks have been on the identical aspect.”

    In response, he stated, the navy organized a “separation”, partially by cultivating patronage relationships with monks, notably essentially the most influential.

Moreover, the navy instilled hatred towards different religions, he stated.


    After the monks joined protests, the navy began providing particular privileges to spiritual leaders, by means of a patronage observe generally known as “masters and followers”, stated Nickey Diamond, a Burmese tutorial from Mandalay who has written about faith and nationalism in Myanmar. His account was echoed by the monk from Kantbalu and one other tutorial, who spoke on the situation of anonymity for concern of retribution.

    Myanmar monks train laypeople who in flip present them with necessities reminiscent of meals and clothes. However monkhoods that constructed sturdy relationships with the navy have been awarded items like land, automobiles, and monasteries, stated Diamond, with out figuring out the beneficiaries.

“When the Saffron Revolution occurred, the navy feared it, and tried to divide the power,” he stated, referring to the regime’s opponents.

    In the meantime, a virulent pressure of Buddhist nationalism was being propagated inside the nation’s monasteries, its origins traceable to an official inside the earlier navy dictatorship who wrote and distributed xenophobic, anti-Muslim tracts.

    The books, which advised sensationalized tales about misdeeds of Muslims and the wedding of Muslim males to Buddhist ladies, “brainwashed monks to be Islamophobic”, stated the monk from Kantbalu, whose account of publicity to anti-Muslim texts echoed these of a number of others interviewed by Reuters.

“My life has been spent in prestigious monastic Buddhist facilities in Myanmar,” he stated. “Since I used to be 14 years previous, I learn books that condemned different religions.”

    Within the mid-2010s, an ultranationalist motion, Ma Ba Tha, advocated boycotts of Muslim-owned companies, referred to as for discriminatory race and faith legal guidelines, and was implicated in waves of lethal violence towards Muslims. On the time, the group denied inciting violence and stated it was solely towards Islamic extremists.


Min Aung Hlaing, the final who overthrew Suu Kyi in February 2021, has tried to domesticate a picture as a protector of the nation’s majority Theravada Buddhist faith, within the model of an extended line of warrior-kings.

    The day earlier than he seized energy, he positioned the primary stone in a seated Buddha statue he says would be the world’s largest. He’s additionally searching for donations for the world’s largest Buddhist pagoda “to point out the world that Theravada Buddhism is shining brightly in Myanmar”, based on state media.

    State information broadcasts displaying navy help for Buddhism elevated four-fold within the 9 months instantly after the coup, based on an evaluation by america Institute of Peace, a U.S.-funded institute that analyzes conflicts abroad. Min Aung Hlaing has sought to justify the coup by claiming Suu Kyi failed to guard “race and faith”.

    Regardless of standing beside the military because it oversaw the lethal 2017 purge of 730,000 ethnic Rohingya, the Suu Kyi authorities later tried to rein in ultranationalist Ma Ba Tha monks who publicly endorsed the violence. Ma Ba Tha was disbanded and Wirathu, a monk who toured the nation inciting hatred of Muslims, was jailed for sedition.

    Since final yr’s coup, Suu Kyi and most of her authorities have been jailed on a number of expenses, whereas Ma Ba Tha monks together with Wirathu have been freed. The junta has not stated why they have been launched. Wirathu’s spokesperson didn’t reply to requests for remark.

    In movies posted on-line, Wathawa, recognized regionally as “Ma Ba Tha monk” due to his ties to the group, praises Min Aung Hlaing because the “biggest chief” to rule Myanmar. He says he has personally based “many militia” to combat pro-democracy teams and has greater than 4,000 followers.

Taiga, a spokesman for the Taze Individuals’s Defence Pressure, a resistance group, who goes by one title, stated the determine was decrease and that Wathawa’s group forcibly recruited from villages. Reuters was not in a position to independently confirm the recruiting ways or the scale of the militia’s membership.

He stated his group could be ready to kill monks in the event that they have been in battle with the junta, “There are good and unhealthy monks… We think about an ally of an enemy to be an enemy, whether or not he’s a monk or not.”

    In a single video, Wathawa will be seen beating villagers for supporting resistance fighters.

    “It’s going to by no means be attainable for them to win over the navy within the close to future, or ever,” Wathawa advised Reuters by cellphone.

    Questioned additional, the cellphone line went useless, and he didn’t reply subsequent calls. He didn’t reply to questions concerning the beatings.

State media broadcasts have proven navy commanders showering Wathawa and his militia with money and meals donations.

    In November, junta media introduced the navy had honored Wirathu with an award for “excellent efficiency” and Wathawa a prize for “social excellence, first grade”.

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