Six months after Myanmar’s military overthrew the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi, the people of this Southeast Asian nation continue to live in fear amid the turmoil that has followed in the wake of the coup. With a violent crackdown on public dissent and street demonstrations—which continue on a limited scale in defiance of military-led suppression—the junta has consolidated its hold on power. Even the country’s venerated monastic sangha have found themselves in the military’s crosshairs, with at least 23 monks known to be custody, some of whom have been reportedly been tortured.
Ven. Yazina, a monk and teacher from New Masoeyin Monastery in Myanmar’s second-largest city Mandalay, related his experiences during a military operation on 28 May. Ven. Yazina had been actively demonstrating against the coup for more than three months as hundreds of civilians across the country lost their lives and thousands were arrested. Many of those detained have not been seen since.
“We had just left the monastery when they [the military] arrived and started shooting,” Ven. Yazina recalled. “Everyone was running in a panic. I tried to hop onto a motorcycle to get away, but that was when they struck me with a car.” (Myanmar Now)
Ven. Yazina said he was then beaten repeatedly by three soldiers before being taken into custody, forcibly disrobed, and sent to an interrogation centre at Mandalay Palace. There, Ven. Yazina said, he was tortured alongside many laypeople who had been protesting the military’s hold on power.
Another monk, Ven. Eainaka was also forced to disrobe after being arrested by junta forces on 11 March at a protest in the northern city of Mogok. He was later found guilty of incitement under Section 505b of Myanmar’s Penal Code and sentenced to three years in prison.
Buddhist monastics, venerated throughout Burmese society, are highly influential in Myanmar (formerly Burma), a predominantly Theravada Buddhist country in which 88 per cent of the population of roughly 60 million people identify as Buddhists, according to 2014 census data. Buddhist monastics stood at the forefront of pro-democracy protests against the previous military junta in 2007, a movement known as the Saffron Revolution, which helped to bolster grassroots support. Buddhist monks are estimated to number in excess of 500,000, mainly centered in and around the cities of Yangon and Mandalay, along with some 75,000 Buddhist nuns.
Some observers have drawn parallels between the current crackdown and the Saffron Revolution, when the military government sought to silence Buddhist monks as a political voice; then 61 monasteries were shuttered and at least 300 monks were rounded up and detained.
“Back in 2007, we went around the city chanting the Metta Sutta, the Discourse on Loving-Kindness, and they opened fire on us,” said Ven. Min Thone Nya, who recalled his participation in the Saffron Revolution to overthrow the dictatorship. “Then they raided our monasteries and arrested us like criminals. They didn’t care if they hurt or even killed us.” (Myanmar Now)
According to Ven. Min Thone Nya, senior and influential monks have been targeted since the beginning of the coup. “If they really wanted to protect ‘our race and religion,’ they wouldn’t arrest respected monks for no reason like this,” he said. (Myanmar Now)
Ven. Ariyabiwuntha, the abbot of Mandalay’s Myawaddy Mingyi Monastery and an outspoken critic of the military, was arrested in February, at the beginning of the coup, and placed in detention. On Monday he was released.
“About 20 policemen came to the monastery for the arrest,” he recalled. “As usual, they said they wanted me to come with them to meet their superior officer. They held me at the police station for the night and the next day they read a warrant to me that I was charged under section 500 for defamation.” (Radio Free Asia)
“Even though they disrobed me in prison, a monk is a monk because we have been ordained. The clothes don’t alter clerical status,” Ven. Ariyabiwuntha recounted. “We have been preaching about justice and democracy and human rights as good practices for people in accordance with the Dhamma. But they see it as doing politics. It is the duty of the sangha to teach people to do the right things and avoid evil. It is not easy to confront [a] dictatorship, but we have to speak up for the sake of the country.” (Radio Free Asia)
The monk continued: “This corrupt political system . . . will ruin everything. There’s a Burmese saying: ‘When the sky falls, nobody survives.’ You can’t have strong economics, education, livelihoods or religion as long as the political system is corrupt. Everything will be in ruins. I don’t think those things, let alone religion or the country itself, would survive under such a corrupt system. It really pains me to see that some are destroying the political culture in the name of something sacred.” (Myanmar Now)
Myanmar’s military declared a year-long state of emergency on 1 February, after detaining President Win Myint, State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, and other members of the governing National League for Democracy (NLD) party. The coup d’état took place just hours before the country’s new parliament was due to convene following a general election in November last year, during which the NLD made substantial electoral gains.
Suu Kyi, who served the country from 2016–21 following a long struggle for democracy that overturned decades of military rule, remains under house arrest, facing a litany of charges from the coup leaders in an apparent attempt to provide a legal veneer for her detention. Before leading the civilian government, Suu Kyi, now 75, spent almost 15 years under house arrest for her efforts to bring democracy to Myanmar.
The military, which had backed the parliamentary opposition in the national election, has asserted that it staged the coup in response to electoral fraud, however the national election commission has said there is no evidence to support these claims. The NLD won around 80 per cent of the available parliamentary seats in last year’s vote.
On 31 July, the New York-based NGO Human Rights Watch decried the junta’s violent suppression of demonstrations and detention of protestors and critics over the previous six months, reporting that it had included acts that violated international humanitarian conventions.
“Myanmar’s junta has responded to massive popular opposition to the coup with killings, torture, and arbitrary detention of people who merely want last year’s election results to be respected and a government that reflects the popular will,” Human Rights Watch’s Asia director, Brad Adams, said in a statement. “These attacks on the population amount to crimes against humanity for which those responsible should be brought to account.” (Human Rights Watch)
Since seizing power, the self-styled State Administration Council (SAC), led by military commander-in-chief General Min Aung Hlaing, has unilaterally amended the country’s treason and sedition legislation in an apparent bid to secure impunity for the coup leaders.
A nationwide civil disobedience movement (CDM) quickly gathered pace in the wake of the coup, with hundreds of thousands of people protesting in towns and cities across the country, denouncing the military and calling for the release of detained civilian leaders. The CDM movement, which began with medical personnel, was taken up by teachers, engineers, railway workers, bank staff, and even some members of the police force, who on some occasions were witnessed switching sides to join the protestors.
“We must overthrow this dictatorship at all costs,” Ven. Min Thone Nya emphasized. “If we fail, it will be the end of Buddhism as we know it. If they keep oppressing monks who spread the truth of the Dhamma, all that will be left are the dishonored ones.” (Myanmar Now)
As of 5 August, 948 people were confirmed to have been killed by the military junta, the Myanmar- and Thailand-based human rights organization Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) reported. The organization added that the figure represented only deaths that the AAPP could independently verify, and that the actual number of killings was likely much higher. A total of 7,055 people were known to have been taken into detention, with 65 sentenced to death—some in absentia, the AAPP said.
URGENT APPEAL for Humanitarian Relief to support Buddhist Monks and Nuns in Myanmar’s Political Movement Against Military Dictatorship (International Network of Engaged Buddhists)
Daily Briefing in Relation to the Military Coup: Updated 5 August 2021 (Assistance Association for Political Prisoners)
As junta crushes all challenges to its power, even monks are caught in its crosshairs (Myanmar Now)
‘This dictatorship will ruin everything’ (Myanmar Now)
Interview: ‘We Have to Speak up for the Sake of the Country,’ Says Freed Monk (Radio Free Asia)
Myanmar: Coup Leads to Crimes Against Humanity (Human Rights Watch)
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