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Myanmar’s navy turns to Buddhism in bid for legitimacy

A plan is below manner for Min Aung Hlaing, head of Myanmar’s navy and chief of final 12 months’s coup, to construct the most important sculpture of a sitting Buddha on this planet – a part of his try and forge a legacy as a protector of Buddhism.

However, within the final 12 months, troopers instantly below his command have killed almost 1,500 folks in a crackdown on the navy’s opponents that violates Buddhism’s first and most vital precept: to abstain from killing.

”Their Buddhism is a pretend present, they don’t need to be referred to as Buddhists. We don’t kill different folks. What they’re doing proper now could be all reverse of Buddhism,” stated Agga Wantha, a 30-year-old monk from Mandalay who has been main protests towards the coup.

“They’re simply saying that they’re Buddhist however they’re doing this simply to come up with the nation.”

Min Aung Hlaing has turned to strategies used previously to try to declare some type of legitimacy on this 90-percent Buddhist nation that has been below navy management for many of the previous 60 years.

That has meant alliances with high-profile monks and common reminders of the high-ranking officers’ devotion to the Buddha, regardless of a seamless marketing campaign of violence.

Obeisance, alms and scorched earth

In late October, the navy initiated a scorched-earth campaign in Thantlang, in northwestern Chin State, destroying a whole bunch of buildings and forcing 1000’s to flee their houses.

Days later, Min Aung Hlaing visited a number of monasteries in Mandalay, Myanmar’s second-biggest metropolis, making obeisance and giving alms. Among the many monks he met was Bhamo Sayadaw, chairperson of the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee, a government-appointed physique of high-level monks that oversees Buddhism and the clergy in Myanmar.

A man prays outside Yangon's landmark Sule Pagoda in the early hours of February 1 when the military seized powerMost individuals in Myanmar are Buddhist. Coup chief Min Aung Hlaing is planning to construct the world’s greatest sitting Buddha as a manner of displaying his devotion and successful help from the monks [File: EPA]

Navy management visits to high-profile monks are printed nearly day by day within the state-run media as a part of the general public relations effort. A report from the US Institute of Peace final month confirmed that public shows of navy help for Buddhism elevated nearly four-fold after the coup.

“The military has been very intelligent about utilizing faith as their promoting level. In case you’re a monk within the society you might have absolutely the respect of the inhabitants. Because of this the navy needs to make use of them as a result of it’s a very efficient software for them to control society,” stated Sai Thet Naing Oo, Myanmar nation consultant on the Pyidaungsu Institute for Peace and Dialogue, which works to deliver collectively totally different political voices in Myanmar.

“So despite the fact that there are various different issues he may very well be doing, Min Aung Hlaing at all times takes time to go to the favored monks.”

‘Nearly everyone hates them’

The navy has confronted appreciable opposition because it deposed civilian chief Aung San Suu Kyi and her get together, the Nationwide League for Democracy (NLD), in a coup it claimed was needed due to fraud within the November 2020 elections.

A powerful resistance motion emerged nearly instantly, with demonstrations and a mass motion of civil disobedience resulting in the event of a decentralised community of armed teams, often called the Individuals’s Defence Power (PDF), that’s now in common battle with navy troops throughout the nation.

The worldwide neighborhood has additionally condemned the regime with the US and the European Union imposing sanctions towards a number of navy leaders and military-owned companies. On the United Nations, the nation continues to be represented by the ambassador appointed by the NLD authorities.

With overwhelming resistance at dwelling and an absence of help internationally, the navy is determined for any help it may possibly get, in line with Richard Horsey, Myanmar adviser on the Worldwide Disaster Group.

In early September, navy authorities introduced that that they had launched Ashin Wirathu, a monk identified for his Buddhist nationalist views, particularly his bigoted stance against Muslims.

Horsey says that whereas the navy has maintained a long way from Wirathu and has not but totally “thrown itself one hundred pc behind the Buddhist nationalist agenda”, they wish to maintain the hardline factions readily available.

“They don’t have many associates. They’re seeking to maintain or acquire no matter associates they’ll in a context the place nearly everyone hates them,” Horsey advised Al Jazeera.

“Clearly Buddhist nationalism is without doubt one of the playing cards they’ll play, one of many constituents they’ll attain out to, and it’s actually one thing they’ve been sending alerts about, despite the fact that they haven’t totally adopted by means of on that but.”

The navy’s efforts to make use of Buddhism and Buddhist nationalism as a legitimising tactic have additionally prolonged internationally.

Prominent monk Sitagu Sayadaw in traditional saffron robes sits in a carved wooden seat at a lavish ceremony in NaypyidawMin Aung Hlaing is courting Sitagu Sayadaw, left, seen at a ceremony in Naypyidaw in 2017, who beforehand defended the navy over its brutal crackdown on the Rohingya [File: Hein Htet/EPA]

When Min Aung Hlaing’s second-in-command, Common Soe Win, visited Russia in September to supervise an arms deal, he was accompanied by Sitagu Sayadaw, one other controversial monk identified for holding hardline views. Horsey explains that a part of this resolution was in all probability a “credibility problem” and that travelling with a monk “exhibits that you’ve got some kind of non secular backing”.

Sitagu, who’s a regime favorite, was one of many main monastic voices in the course of the 2017 “clearance operations” wherein 1000’s of mostly Muslim Rohingya were killed and a whole bunch of 1000’s fled into neighbouring Bangladesh. Sitagu defended the navy’s actions, saying that “non-Buddhists aren’t human so killing them is justified.” The Rohingya crackdown is now the topic of a genocide investigation.

Whereas the navy will not be embracing Buddhist nationalism in its entirety, it does appear to have resumed its old strategy of focusing its assaults on the elements of the nation with massive non-Buddhist populations.

“You see extra of the armed battle today occurring in majority non-Buddhist areas. They [the military] don’t say that they’re attacking a gaggle of individuals from a unique faith, however you possibly can see who they’re concentrating on. They let their actions converse for them,” Sai Oo advised Al Jazeera, referring to current assaults in Chin, which is 85 p.c Christian and Kayah, dwelling to the nation’s largest neighborhood of Roman Catholics.

Non secular discrimination

The navy has additionally used Buddhism in its makes an attempt to tarnish the legitimacy of its opposition, launching smear campaigns towards the quickly rising resistance motion and its detained leaders.

Articles printed in state-run media accuse PDF fighters of murdering monks, claiming that “terrorist teams deliberately kill the monks of Buddhism as the religion professed by the nice majority of the residents.”

Earlier than the coup, the navy additionally portrayed Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD as “insufficiently supportive of Buddhism” to discourage help from the clergy by sparking concern that the civilian authorities was overly liberal and secular, in line with Horsey.

This line of assault has continued because the coup. In a speech in August, Min Aung Hlaing stated that “Buddha devotees had been disheartened of their religion in Buddhism in the course of the earlier 5 years”, referring to the interval wherein the NLD authorities was in workplace.

However this propaganda, whereas embraced by some inside the monastic neighborhood, particularly its extra hardline members, presents a really totally different image to the expertise of non secular minorities in Myanmar.

Salai Za Uk Ling, who serves because the deputy govt director of the Chin Human Rights Group, a rights-based group representing the Christian-majority Chin inhabitants, says that even when Aung San Suu Kyi was in workplace, Buddhism was a dominating drive in politics.

“Christianity is considered a international faith in [Myanmar] and Christians have been handled like second-class residents. Underneath the civilian authorities we noticed just about nothing change when it comes to insurance policies – the coverage manifested in a extra delicate manner, however there was no actual, severe efforts to deal with the foundation causes of discrimination towards non secular minorities,” stated Za Uk.

“And what we’re seeing now below the present navy junta is simply the continuation of this lengthy coverage.”

Nonetheless, regardless of the NLD’s comparable stance on Buddhism, the navy’s marketing campaign towards Aung San Suu Kyi and now the resistance motion does seem to have had some impression.

Air attacks on Thantlang in northwestern Chin state in October sent columns of smoke rising into the air after parts of the town were destroyedSome monks say the navy breaches the precepts of Buddhism with indiscriminate crackdowns and bombings just like the October assault in town of Thantlang, Chin [File: Chin Human Rights Organization via AP Photo]

Throughout earlier intervals of political unrest, monks had been usually on the forefront of the protests. In 2007, the “Saffron Revolution“, named for the color of the monks’ robes, erupted in response to a rise in gas costs and for greater than a month 1000’s of monks flooded the streets all throughout the nation.

However monk and protest chief Agga Wantha says that monks’ lack of visibility within the anti-coup motion will not be as a result of the clergy helps the navy. Fairly, he says, many monks haven’t been capable of take part overtly due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the involvement of those that have is being overshadowed by the high-profile monks who’ve aligned themselves with the navy.

“For the reason that navy coup, Min Aung Hlaing has bribed and gained favours for monks to be on his facet however we don’t want civilians to suppose that we aren’t supporting the [protest movement]. We, as monks, additionally don’t agree with the navy taking up the nation,” stated Agga Wantha.

But, because the navy leans on faith and its alliances with the clergy to bolster its grip on energy, the navy is popping on others inside Myanmar’s Buddhist neighborhood who’re making it more and more clear that they won’t help the exploitation of their faith by a regime that kills its personal folks.

“We’re affected by their ruling too. If we encounter them on the road, they shoot at us and, if we’re unlucky, we get arrested too,” stated Agga Wantha. “This isn’t what we do as Buddhists so we are going to proceed to protest.”

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