Buddhist monks split on anti-junta movement

Ultra-nationalist Buddhist monk Parmaukkha blames the media for the rising death toll on the streets, saying it is inciting opposition to the junta. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Ultra-nationalist Buddhist monk Parmaukkha blames the media for the rising death toll on the streets, saying it is inciting opposition to the junta. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

YANGON • Buddhist monks in Myanmar led an earlier struggle against military rule but are now split on the coup that ended the country's nascent democracy, with some prominent religious leaders defending the new junta.

Three months of turmoil have followed the February pre-dawn raids in which soldiers arrested civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her top allies, sparking furious and widespread opposition.

Protesters have mobilised on the streets daily since, despite threats of lethal violence from security forces who have shot dead hundreds in an effort to bring the public to heel.

Joining their ranks are a number of largely young, crimson-robed monks who have defied religious edicts against political activity to proclaim their condemnation of the generals.

"I am willing to give up my precious monkhood and take part in the revolution together with the people," said Shwe Ohh Sayardaw, 44, who has been forced to move between different monasteries to evade arrest.

The struggle against the junta has drawn broad and vocal support from across Myanmar and, with Buddhist worship a cornerstone of public life for most of the country, the monkhood is no exception.

Security forces are closely watching monasteries for anti-coup activism, and about a dozen monks have been arrested, according to a local monitoring group.

But a hardline, pro-military faction within the clergy has also defended the new junta as a protector of a majority-Buddhist identity against the purported threat of a slow Islamic takeover.

Among that group is ultra-nationalist monk Parmaukkha, who has a large following and was once arrested for inciting hatred against Myanmar's stateless Rohingya Muslim minority.

Keeping Ms Suu Kyi at the helm would see "an extinction of our religion, ethnicity and the entire country", he said.

The ideological divide is a far cry from Myanmar's last nationwide uprising in 2007, first sparked by a sudden hike in fuel prices. Monks led huge protests against the military junta at the time.

The so-called Saffron Revolution posed a severe legitimacy crisis for the dictatorship, which responded with brutal crackdowns that killed at least 31 people and saw hundreds of monks defrocked and arrested.

Meanwhile, a nationalist movement known as Ma Ba Tha emerged within the clergy alongside the growing prominence of a charismatic extremist monk named Wirathu - once dubbed "the Buddhist bin Laden" by Time magazine.

His rhetoric and his followers' hostility towards the Rohingya helped whip up public support for a brutal 2017 military crackdown which United Nations investigators have branded a "genocide".

The movement believes that the military is the only force capable of staving off what it claims is a growing "Islamisation" of Myanmar - despite Muslims making up less than 5 per cent of the country's population.

"People who can think ahead about that future will not protest against the current government," Parmaukkha has said, in defending the military's power grab.

Security forces have killed at least 780 civilians, according to a local monitoring group, in a series of brutal crackdowns aimed at quelling opposition to the coup.

But Parmaukkha blames the media for the growing death toll on the streets, saying it is inciting opposition to military rule.

Shwe Ohh Sayardaw disagrees, blaming it instead on a military that has "unjustly seized power". He says: "The crisis is the result of peaceful demonstrations, a normal process in a democracy. We must stand on the side of justice."

The code of monastic life prohibits some 300,000 monks from voting or taking part in political demonstrations.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 14, 2021, with the headline Buddhist monks split on anti-junta movement. Subscribe