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Burma's monks divided over military's coup

by The New York Times | August 29, 2021 at 3:18 a.m.

Day after day, despite a raging pandemic and the threat of sniper bullets, a small band of Buddhist monks in burgundy robes gathers in the city of Mandalay in Burma. Their acts of dissent last only a few minutes, hasty candlelight vigils or flash-mob protests in the shadow of a monastery with gilded eaves.

The clerics' demand is lofty: Men in uniform, men who protest a bit too loudly that they are pious Buddhists, must exit politics. The military has dominated Burma for the better part of 60 years, most recently by staging a coup against an elected government and killing more than 1,000 people for daring to oppose its power grab.

"In the future, there should be no dictatorship at all," read one sign held aloft Monday by a monk.

Burma often is called Myanmar, a name that military authorities adopted in 1989. Some nations, such as the United States and Britain, have refused to adopt the name change.

In an overwhelmingly Buddhist nation where monks are seen as the supreme moral authority, the political chaos since the Feb. 1 coup has laid bare deep divisions within Burma's clergy. While a minority of monks have openly joined the protest movement, and hundreds have been imprisoned for it, clerics have not taken the leadership role that they were known for in past bouts of resistance to the military. Some prominent monks have even given the generals their blessing.

This split in the monastic community, Buddhist clerics say, is partly because of the military's assiduous courting of influential monks, luring them with donations and promises that soldiers, more than civilian leaders, are the true defenders of the faith. Harder-edged tactics also have been used to discourage monks from protesting, as armed security forces occupy monasteries -- potential centers for resistance -- and order clerics to return home, citing the coronavirus pandemic.

The relative absence of monks from the protests, particularly in the first weeks after the coup, has not matched the broader mood in Burma. Millions marched in the streets after Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the army chief, ordered the jailing of elected leaders. Even today, as security forces shoot protesters on sight and the coronavirus rips through the country, pockets of democratic rebellion have endured.

For centuries, Burma's monks have taken bold political stands, from hunger strikes demanding independence from Britain to street protests against the army's rule in 2007. And although the government-run national clerical council mostly capitulated to the new order imposed in February, some monks have defied it.

U Mani Sara, a monk from Mandalay, spent a month in prison for attending anti-military rallies earlier this year. On the way to his cell, he was forced to jump like a frog for hours, he said. Spoiled rice was delivered in the morning in a plastic bag, which he had to use for other purposes because there was no toilet.

"The military is a demonic force that uses Buddhism for political purposes to build power," Mani Sara said.

The Tatmadaw, as the military is known, has always used lavish displays of religiosity to legitimize its rule. On the day after the February coup, Min Aung Hlaing, the leader of the putsch, prostrated himself at the feet of a senior Buddhist abbot.

The image of the general and the monk, which appeared in state media outlets, carried a clear message: In a deeply devout country, the army takeover had been sanctified by a higher authority.

"The military is one of the main culprits in tarnishing the image of Buddhism in Myanmar," said U Ariyawuntha, an abbot in Mandalay.

Min Aung Hlaing, who has ordered pogroms against religious minorities, has deliberately fused faith to flag. His army has instructed Buddhists that protecting the religion is a national duty, and that the Tatmadaw is the country's ultimate spiritual guardian.

Print Headline: Burma's monks divided over military's coup

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