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Report: Nearly 60 Buddhist Monks Detained in Myanmar Since Military Seized Power

The junta that overthrew Myanmar’s elected government in 2021 has detained at least 56 Buddhist monks for speaking out against the coup in the last 18 months, the US news organization Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported on Friday.

“Many other religious leaders opposed to military rule face harassment and are on the run amid the threat of arrest,” RFA added. “An investigation based on media reports and interviews with local sources found that the junta [has] targeted members of the Buddhist clergy who had peacefully protested the 1 February 2021 coup, labeling and sometimes prosecuting them as supporters of the armed resistance.” (RFA)

While some of the detained Buddhist monastics have since been released from prison, RFA said it was unable to verify the exact number.

Buddhist monastics are highly influential in Myanmar (formerly Burma), a predominantly Theravada Buddhist country. Monks stood at the forefront of pro-democracy protests in 2007 against the previous military junta. The movemen, known as the Saffron Revolution, helped to bolster grassroots support among the general population. Buddhist monks in Myanmar 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.*

About 89.8 per cent of the population of this Southeast Asian nation identify as Buddhists, according to census data for 2016. Christians make up 6.3 per cent, Muslims 2.3 per cent, and Hindus 0.5 per cent, with tribal and other religions comprising 1 per cent. Groups representing all religious communities—including monastics and clergy—have taken to the streets and demonstrated against the military takeover.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a resident of Ngwe Twin, a village in Sagaing’s Ayadaw Township, which has seen some of the strongest opposition to military rule, said that the chief abbot of the local Pubbah Yone Monastery was beaten and arrested by junta troops and pro-military militia members on 15 August.

“They stormed the monastery and arrested the monk. Dragged him out and took him away quite roughly. They also demanded the keys to the pagoda treasury,” the resident said. “[The military uses] religion only as a form of propaganda. They always fool people by appearing to be pro-religion. But when they aren’t pleased [with the clergy], they arrest the monks. It is very sad that this was done to a monk who was revered by the whole village.” (RFA)

In Mandalay, a monastic member of the regional Sangha Union named Raja Dhamma reported that several members of the Buddhist clergy had been detained in 2021, each of whom was sentenced to three years in prison in July this year for alleged ties to the pro-democracy resistance movement.

Raja Dhamma added that many other monks who had peacefully opposed the coup were “on the run” and being hunted by the military.

“[The military] staged the coup, not for the country, but for their own benefit,” Raja Dhamma was quoted as saying. “[Since then] they often raid monasteries, compiling guest lists and making sure that monks who oppose them cannot find refuge. [Nuns] and monks are also regularly targeted by the military with brutal and inhumane acts.” (RFA)

Five Buddhist monks, left, were arrested and disrobed along with others, right, and sentenced to three years in Mandalay’s Obo Prison in July. Photo by citizen journalist. From rfa.org

Myanmar’s military declared a state of emergency on 1 February 2021, 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 2020, during which the NLD made substantial electoral gains.

The military, which had backed the parliamentary opposition in the national election, asserted that it staged the coup in response to electoral fraud, however the national election commission reported that there was no evidence to support these claims. The NLD won around 80 per cent of the available parliamentary seats in the 2020 vote.

The military-led State Administrative Council has consolidated its hold on power in the wake of the coup by conducting violent crackdowns on public dissent and street demonstrations, which have continued in defiance of the military-led suppression. Even the country’s venerated monastic sangha have found themselves in the military’s crosshairs.**

Despite more than a year of violent suppression, the junta continues to face widespread opposition to its rule. Crackdowns on peaceful protests and a civil disobedience movement (CDM) have resulted in a rise in armed civilian resistance, often with support from existing ethnic militia groups. 

In April this year, a court in the capital Naypyitaw sentenced 76-year-old Aung San Suu Kyi to five years in prison for corruption, based on charges that she accepted bribes totaling US$600,000. Observers say the conviction is the first of a series of 11 criminal cases targeting Suu Kyi that could see the Nobel Peace Prize laureate facing a combined maximum jail term of 190 years.

Buddhist monks protest against the military coup in Yangon. From japantimes.co.jp

In response to the crisis, the International Network of Engaged Buddhists has joined hands with the Clear View Project in Berkley, California, to launch an international appeal for urgent humanitarian relief for Buddhist monks and nuns living in the shadow of the junta.***

“The International Network of Engaged Buddhists and the US-based Clear View Project are coordinating an urgent appeal to raise funds to support the humanitarian emergency in Myanmar that focuses on Buddhist monks and nuns,” INEB said in a message shared with BDG. “[In February 2021] the Myanmar military staged what they considered would be a ‘quick coup’ in which democratically elected members of government, including President U Win Myint and State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, were detained. Since that time, the country has been in turmoil with the people responding by taking a civil disobedience movement to cities and villages across Myanmar.” 

The Myanmar- and Thailand-based human rights organization Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) reported that as of 26 August, 2,249 people involved in pro-democracy movements were confirmed to have been killed by the military junta. The organization noted that the figure represented only deaths that the AAPP could independently verify and that the actual number was likely to be much higher. A total of 12,142 people were known to be in detention, including 83 post-coup death-row prisoners. Altogether, 125 people have sentenced to death—some in absentia, the AAPP said.

* 80-Year-Old Monk Becomes a Symbol of Hope for Myanmar Buddhists (BDG)

** Buddhist Monastics Targeted in Ongoing Crackdown by Myanmar’s Military Junta (BDG), Myanmar Junta Drops Plan to Place Buddhist Monks on Military Roadblocks (BDG)

*** INEB, Clear View Project Launch Humanitarian Appeal for Buddhist Monastics in Myanmar (BDG)

See more

Nearly 5 dozen monks detained in Myanmar since military coup (RFA)
Daily Briefing in Relation to the Military Coup (Assistance Association for Political Prisoners)
Statement Calling for Solidarity and Preserving the Sanctity of Life in Myanmar (International Network of Engaged Buddhists)
URGENT APPEAL for Humanitarian Relief to support Buddhist Monks and Nuns in Myanmar’s Political Movement Against Military Dictatorship (International Network of Engaged Buddhists)

Related news reports from BDG

International Network of Engaged Buddhists Issues Statement Urging Compassion and an End to Violence in Myanmar
Four Buddhist Monks Killed During Military Strike in Myanmar
Buddhist Monk, Civilians Killed as Junta Troops Raze Villages in Northern Myanmar
Myanmar Junta Has Destroyed Over 100 Buddhist Monasteries, Christian Churches – Report
Hundreds of Buddhist Monks Flee Temples in Eastern Myanmar as Violence Escalates
Engaged Buddhism: INEB Launches Sangha for Peace to Tackle Regional Religious and Ethno-Nationalist Tensions
Religious Leaders in Myanmar Decry Persecution by Military Junta
80-Year-Old Monk Becomes a Symbol of Hope for Myanmar Buddhists
Myanmar Junta Drops Plan to Place Buddhist Monks on Military Roadblocks
Buddhist Monastics Targeted in Ongoing Crackdown by Myanmar’s Military Junta
INEB, Clear View Project Launch Humanitarian Appeal for Buddhist Monastics in Myanmar
Engaged Buddhism: INEB Shares Final Report on Mindful Action: COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund
UPDATE: INEB Calls for Reconciliation in Myanmar as Pro-democracy Protests Turn Violent

Related features from BDG

Myanmar: A Month into the Coup
The Other Shoe Drops: Reflections on Myanmar’s Latest Coup
A Reflection on the Intellectual and Socio-Cultural History of Buddhism in Myanmar
Sea of Suffering: The Rohingya and the Conundrum of Buddhist Terror
Buddhistdoor View: Reconciling Nationalism and Buddhism

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