More than six months after the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi was overthrown in a military-led coup, a plan by the junta to position Buddhist monks on military checkpoints and roadblocks in Myanmar’s second-largest city of Mandalay has been abandoned in the face of opposition from the monastic sangha, local media sources report.
The plan, which initially received reluctant approval from Mandalay’s official monastic regulatory body, the Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee, would have seen up to three monks stationed at military checkpoints around Mandalay, set up to enforce COVID-19 restrictions and to discourage pro-democracy protests.
“When the checkpoints were put in place last Monday [16 August], they were manned only by regime forces and civilian administrators because monks refused to take part in the scheme,” the news website Myanmar Now reported on Monday, citing monastic sources. (Myanmar Now)
“Now they know that nothing can be done without the consent of the Buddhist monks,” a member of the Sangha Union, which represents monks opposed to the military junta, was quoted as saying. (Myanmar Now)
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.
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.
The military had sought 30 monks—one for each checkpoint in the city, but the the Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee approved the provision of just three, media reports stated. In March, the committee issued a statement condemning military-led violence against protesters.
The plan to have monks stationed on military roadblocks has been widely criticized as an attempt to shield military personnel from attacks by pro-democracy protestors and guerrilla groups who continue to resist the military’s takeover. Deadly crackdowns by military and police forces on protests and demonstrations have led to reprisals targeting junta forces and regime collaborators.
“If monks cooperate with [the junta], the people will no longer see them as monks,” said a monk from Mandalay’s Mya Taung Monastery. “They are just trying to exploit the religion for their political gain.” (Myanmar Now)
Since seizing power in February, Myanmar’s military has reportedly detained in excess of 20 Buddhist monks, including two senior monastics from Mandalay: Venerable Thawbita and Venerable Myawaddy Sayadaw. The latter was recently released from custody, however other monks who have been released have reported witnessing a number of fellow monastics being tortured.
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.
In 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.
As of 24 August, 1,014 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 5,851 people were known to be held in detention, with 255 sentenced to prison terms and 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 (Assistance Association for Political Prisoners)
Junta cancels plan to put monks at checkpoints in Mandalay (Myanmar Now)
Regime moves to put monks at checkpoints in Mandalay (Myanmar Now)
Military recruiting monks for checkpoints in Mandalay (AsiaNews.it)
Myanmar: Coup Leads to Crimes Against Humanity (Human Rights Watch)
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Buddhist Monks March in Opposition to Military Coup in Myanmar
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