Min Aung Hlaing, head of Myanmar’s military and leader of last year’s coup, is planning to build the world’s largest sculpture of a sitting Buddha as part of his attempt to forge a legacy as a defender of Buddhism.
But in the past year, soldiers under his command have killed nearly 1,500 people in a crackdown on military opponents that violates Buddhism’s first and most important principle: refrain from killing.
“Their Buddhism is a fake show, they don’t deserve to be called Buddhists. We don’t kill other people. What they are doing now is the opposite of Buddhism, “said Aga Vanta, a 30-year-old Mandalay monk who is leading protests against the coup.
“They just say they are Buddhists, but they do it just to take control of the country.”
Min Aung Hlaing turned to methods used in the past to try to claim some legitimacy in this 90 percent Buddhist country that has been under military control for most of the past 60 years.
This meant alliances with high-ranking monks and a regular reminder of the devotion of high-ranking officers to the Buddha, despite the ongoing campaign of violence.
Bow, alms and burnt earth
In late October, the military launched a campaign on the burned land in Tanlang, in the northwestern state of Qin, destroying hundreds of buildings and forcing thousands to flee their homes.
Days later, Min Aung Hlaing visited several monasteries in Mandalay, Myanmar’s second largest city, bowing and giving alms. Among the monks he met was Bhamo Sayado, chairman of the Sangha Maha Nayaka State Committee, a government-appointed body of high-level monks that oversees Buddhism and the clergy in Myanmar.
Visits by the military leadership to high-ranking monks are published almost daily in the state media as part of public relations efforts. A report from the United States Institute of Peace last month showed that public demonstrations of military support for Buddhism have nearly quadrupled since the coup.
“The military has been very smart in using religion as its trading point. If you are a monk in society, you have the absolute respect of the population. That’s why the military wants to use them, because it’s a very effective tool for them to manipulate society, “said Sai Tet Naing O, a representative of Myanmar at the Pyidaungsu Institute for Peace and Dialogue, which works to gather different political voices in Myanmar.
“So, although he could do many other things, Min Aung Hlaing always takes the time to visit popular monks.”
“Almost everyone hates them”
The military has faced significant opposition since ousting civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party in a coup he claims is necessary due to election fraud in November 2020.
Almost immediately, there was a strong resistance movement with demonstrations and a mass movement of civil disobedience, which led to the development of a decentralized network of armed groups known as the People’s Defense Forces (PDF), which are now in regular conflict with military forces throughout the region. country.
The international community has also condemned the regime, with the United States and the European Union imposing sanctions on several military leaders and military companies. At the United Nations, the country continues to be represented by an ambassador appointed by the NLD government.
With enormous resistance at home and a lack of international support, the military is in desperate need of any support it can receive, according to Richard Horsey, Myanmar’s adviser to the International Crisis Group.
In early September, military authorities announced the release of Ashin Viratu, a monk known for his Buddhist nationalist views, especially his fanatical stance against Muslims.
Horsey says that although the military has kept some distance from Wirathu and has not yet “thrown itself 100 percent behind the Buddhist nationalist agenda,” they want to keep the hard factions on hand.
“They don’t have many friends. “They are trying to keep or win what their friends can in a context where almost everyone hates them,” Horsey told Al Jazeera.
“Obviously, Buddhist nationalism is one of the cards they can play, one of the components they can touch, and it’s certainly something they send signals to, even though they haven’t fully followed it yet.”
The military’s efforts to use Buddhism and Buddhist nationalism as legitimizing tactics have also expanded internationally.
When the second in command of Min Aung Hlaing, General Soe Wyn, visited Russia in September to observe the arms deal, he was accompanied by Shitagu Sayado, another controversial monk known for his tough views. Horsey explains that part of that decision was probably a “problem of trust” and that the trip with a monk “shows that you have some religious support.”
The regime’s pro-Shitagu was one of the leading monastic voices during the 2017 “cleansing operations”, in which thousands of mostly Rohingya Muslims were killed and hundreds of thousands fled to neighboring Bangladesh. Shitagu defended the military’s actions, saying “non-Buddhists are not human beings, so killing them is justified.” The Rohingya repression is now under investigation for genocide.
Although the military may not accept Buddhist nationalism in its entirety, it appears to have resumed its old strategy of focusing its attacks on parts of the country with large non-Buddhist populations.
“You see more of the armed conflict these days, which is happening in most non-Buddhist areas. They [the military] don’t say they’re attacking a group of people of a different religion, but you can see who they’re targeting. They let their actions speak for them, “Sai Oo told Al Jazeera, referring to recent attacks in Chin, where 85 percent are Christians, and Kaya, home to the country’s largest Roman Catholic community.
The military has also used Buddhism in an attempt to tarnish the legitimacy of its opposition by launching slanderous campaigns against the rapidly growing resistance movement and its detained leaders.
Articles published in state media accused PDF fighters of killing monks, claiming that “terrorist groups deliberately kill Buddhist monks as a religion professed by the vast majority of citizens.”
Prior to the coup, the military also portrayed Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD as “insufficiently supportive of Buddhism” to discourage clergy from supporting fears that the civilian government was too liberal and secular, Horse said.
This line of attack continued after the coup. In a speech in August, Min Aung Hlaing said that “Buddha worshipers have been discouraged from believing in Buddhism for the past five years,” referring to the period in which the NLD government was in power.
But this propaganda, although accepted by some in the monastic community, especially by its more outspoken members, paints a very different picture of the experience of religious minorities in Myanmar.
Salai Za Uk Ling, who serves as deputy executive director of the Qin Human Rights Organization, a right-wing group representing the Qin population with a majority of Christians, says that even when Aung San Suu Kyi was in office, Buddhism was the dominant force. politics.
“Christianity is considered a foreign religion [Myanmar] and Christians are treated as second-class citizens. “We have seen almost no change in the civil government in terms of policies – the policy has manifested itself in a more subtle way, but there have been no real, serious efforts to address the root causes of discrimination against religious minorities.”
“And what we see now with the current military junta is just a continuation of this long policy.
However, despite the NLD’s similar stance on Buddhism, the military’s campaign against Aung San Suu Kyi and now the resistance movement seems to have had some influence.
In previous periods of political unrest, monks were often at the forefront of protests. In 2007, the Saffron Revolution, named after the monks’ color, erupted in response to rising fuel prices, and for more than a month, thousands of monks flooded streets across the country.
But monk and protest leader Aga Waanta says the monks’ lack of visibility in the anti-coup movement is not because the clergy support the military. Rather, he says, many monks have failed to participate openly because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the participation of those who have has been overshadowed by high-ranking monks who have joined the army.
“Since the military coup, Min Aung Hlaying has bribed and won services for monks to be on his side, but we do not want civilians to think we do not support [protest movement]. We, as monks, also do not agree with the military taking over the country, “said Aga Waanta.
Yet as the military relies on religion and alliances with the clergy to consolidate its power, the military is turning to others in Myanmar’s Buddhist community, who are making it increasingly clear that they will not support the exploitation of their a religion from a regime that kills its own people.
“And we are suffering from their decision. If we meet them on the street, they shoot at us, and if we are unhappy, we are also arrested, “said Aga Waanta. “We are not doing this as Buddhists, so we will continue to protest.