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Myanmar’s monks, leaders of past protests, are divided over the coup

The military has dominated Myanmar for the better part of 60 years, most recently by staging a coup against an elected government and killing more than a thousand people for daring to oppose its power grab.

By: New York Times |
August 29, 2021 1:07:31 pm
Monks protest the army coup of Myanmar in Mandalay on Feb. 27, 2021. (The New York Times)

Written by Hannah Beech

Day after day, despite a raging pandemic and the threat of snipers’ bullets, a small band of Buddhist monks in burgundy robes gathers in the city of Mandalay in Myanmar. 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 Myanmar for the better part of 60 years, most recently by staging a coup against an elected government and killing more than a thousand people for daring to oppose its power grab.

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

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 Myanmar’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 due to 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 have also 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 pandemic.

The relative absence of monks from the protests, particularly in the first weeks after the coup, has not matched the broader mood in Myanmar. 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, Myanmar’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.

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