Conflicts & War

Buddhist monks that support the military junta in Myanmar

By Gaspar Ruiz-Canela

Bangkok, Sep 15 (EFE).- Buddhism is known for meditation and its pacifist philosophy, but this does not stop some monks like the octogenarian Sitagu Sayadaw from supporting the military junta that has plunged Myanmar into a spiral of violence since it seized power in a coup in 2021.

The influential Sitagu Sayadaw has been known to be close to the regime following his meetings with the head of the military junta General Min Aung Hlaing, whom he treats as a legitimate leader.

While thousands of monks joined the anti-military protests and dozens were shot dead by soldiers and police, Sitagu Sayadaw was photographed in March last year along with Min Aung Hlaing.

This monk came to be noted for his criticism of the former military junta (1988-2011), but in recent decades his speech has become more nationalist and Islamophobic, and in 2017 he came to justify violence against non-Buddhists.

This statement, during a sermon before soldiers, referred to a 5th century Buddhist text, but was interpreted as support for the 2016 and 2017 military campaigns against the Rohinya Muslim minority.

The military has ruled Myanmar with an iron fist for 50 of the last 74 years, but the current military leaders have distinguished themselves by their brutality in the violent repression of peaceful demonstrators and the bombing of civilians.

Besides leading the coup, Min Aung Hlaing was the architect of the 2016 and 2017 military operations against the Rohinyas, and is being investigated for alleged crimes against humanity and genocide by the international court of justice.

The revered Sitagu Sayadaw is not the only monk close to the military.

Bonzo U Kovida, also known as Vasipake Sayadaw, is believed to advise Min Aung Hlaing on astrological matters and even have suggested the date of the coup, according to the media entity Irrawaddy.

In the Sagaing region in the north, Abbot U Warthawa appeared in a video in June urging the pro-junta militia to “wipe off the map” villages that support pro-democratic forces that have taken up arms against the Army, according to Myanmar Now newspaper.

Other religious figures close to the junta are Bhaddanta Dhamma Siri, from Shan state in the northeast, and Bhaddanta Kavidaja from the eastern state of Karen.

Facing intense opposition in the country, the military has been using these monks to clean up their image and try to gain legitimacy, while fueling their ultra-nationalist narrative.

“Some monks support the military, they agree with them, but they do not believe in justice, they are only interested in promoting themselves and their Islamophobic and xenophobic speeches,” Ashin, a monk from the city of Mandalay, told EFE.

However, “most of the monks do not support the junta,” he said, underlining that after the coup poverty and hunger have increased and many now live in fear.

In August, Sitagu Sayadaw received a Spanish delegation led by the head of the Lumbini Garden Foundation, Jose Manuel Vilanova Aleman, who is promoting the construction of a giant Buddha in the province of Caceres, in southern Spain.

The statue will be built with Burmese jade, which is seen as controversial given that the military and affiliated groups control many of its mines.

Buddhist monks led protests known as the “Saffron Revolution” in 2007 against the military and many of them have expressed support for democracy after the 2021 coup.

However, the French historian specializing in Myanmar, Jacques Leider, explained to EFE that it was very difficult to ascertain how many monks support the military or pro-democratic groups, given the numerous Buddhist monasteries and organizations in the country, including groups with no political interest.

Leider pointed out that many Europeans have the “romantic idea” of Buddhism as a peaceful religion, although Buddhism has also been used to justify violence in countries such as Myanmar, Thailand and Sri Lanka.

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