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The Unholy Nexus Between the Monks and Military in Myanmar

22 Mar 2023
By Sauid Ahmed Khan
Monks Protesting in Burma, 2007. Source: racoles/

Myanmar’s many ethnic divisions have proved an inhibiting challenge for national unification and development. At the forefront of the current ethnic conflict is the unlikely alliance between Monks and the military. 

During the celebration of Myanmar’s independence on 4 January, 2023, the junta leadership bestowed Ashin Wirathu, a Bhuddist Monk and nationalist extremist, the title of “Thiri Pyanchi” for “outstanding work for the good of the Union of Myanmar.” Not surprisingly, this sparked widespread controversy both in print and social media platforms. Aung Kyaw Moe, advisor at the Ministry of Human Rights of National Unity Government (NUG), claimed on Twitter that “The award’s prestige has gone [sic] nothing but less than zero when the name of the award is being used to give to criminals.”

Ashin Wirathu, often known as U Wirathu and who is a Buddhist monk and the leader of the radical 969 organisation, has been awarded for his many accomplishments for the military government. For orchestrating a violent anti-Muslim riot in Mandalay, Wirathu was imprisoned for 25 years until freed in 2012. In 2013, Time magazine featured him on its cover as “the face of Buddhist terror” for his role as a hatred preacher. Occasionally, he is dubbed as “Buddhist Bin Landen.” In 2018, the social media platform Facebook banned him for his hate speech against Muslims.

An unholy alliance

Using religion as a tool for retaining power is not a new strategy for humankind. In Myanmar, the Buddhist-Bama (Bama being the dominant ethnic group) institutional structure has long defined the ideological longevity of such groups. In Myanmar both religion and ethnicity have become powerful weapons for demographic control and efficient government. Buddhist monks are often employed by the military when they are unable to attract their citizens to their interests.

A number of ultranationalist Patriotic Association of Myanmar (Ma-Ba-Tha) Monks were banned and imprisoned as part of Aung San Suu Kyi’s quasi-civilian NDL (National League for Democracy) government attempt to rein in extremism. With the military junta back in power after the 2021 coup, Ma-Ba-Tha has been released, which has coincided with greater support for the junta as the protector of Buddhism.

At the time the coup was unravelling, parallel demonstrations in favor of the military were being led by the same Monks who had marched against the military regime in 2007. These extremist Monks have long been the cause of violence against minorities, including the riots of 2013 that killed 70 Muslims and led to a military operation in Rakhine. Over time, the military has treated them with gifts and has encouraged their ultranationalist and frequently Islamophobic agendas.

Ultra-nationalism and a history of mass grievance

In Burma, Buddhist fundamental principles constitute the foundation of the nationalist movement. But this religious coherence coexists among other privileges of nationality, which include the 135 ethnic and racial groups that are constitutionally recognised as having lived in Burma since colonialisation. Part of the challenge is that the categorisation of such groupings has led to the centralisation of a Bama-hegemonic enterprise. Over time, the slow exclusion of ethnic minorities from resources development and political representation has evolved into the persecution of minorities, as the plight of the Rohingya people illustrates. Other ethnic minority groups frequently involved in violent conflict in Myanmar include Kachin, Shan, and Karen peoples. These conflicts frequently spring from resource and political power struggles and historical grievances.

The Barman language has largely replaced minority languages in schools. Individuals from other faiths, such as Chin, Muslim, Hindu, and Christian, are encouraged and even forced to convert to Buddhism. This development took a more systemic turn in 2012 when the accusation emerged that Muslims were forcibly marrying Buddhist women and then disinheriting them and their children if they did not convert to Islam. Monks took to the streets to demonstrate against inter-religious marriage.

With its formation in 2013, the ultra-nationalist group Ma Ba Tha has inflamed anti-Muslim sentiments throughout the country, campaigning for boycotts of businesses, for instance, owned by Muslims. They raised a significant amount of money for the physical barrier that has been built on the border with Bangladesh to prevent a Muslim “Invasion.” The extremist U Wirathu also led a Mandalay Monk demonstration to support then-president Thein Sein’s bigoted Rohingya expulsion policy.

Policy-wise, Muslims have become virtual prisoners of their provinces. For the Rohingya people in Rakhine, a sense of statelessness has existed since 1982. Despite the fact that many Indian and Chinese migrants have become citizens of Myanmar, Rohingyas are by contrast often labelled as “Bengali Muslim migrants.”

The origins of this statelessness can be traced back to WWII, where following the allied victory, the Arakan Muslims, the majority of which had remained loyal to the British, were guaranteed their freedoms. They were to be included in the reconstituted Burmese state – co-citizens with other Arakanese and Buddhists peoples who had supported the Burman Nationalists and the Japanese during the war. When Burma gained its independence, Rakhine and Buddhist extremists carried out an ethnic cleansing campaign, killing an estimated 100,000 Rohingya. Lawmakers in Burma refused to grant them citizenship because of their loyalty to the British monarch during WWII.

The more recent 2017 military crackdown is one of the deadliest persecutions of Rohingya Muslims to date, with millions fleeing into Bangladesh to seek refuge.  The United Nations would later call such programmatic persecution a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” Previously, there have been at least five mass exoduses from Arakan: in 1784, 1942, 1964, 1978, and 2013.

Offer to Fight Alongside

The combination of political turmoil and ethnic tension is a certain recipe for civil unrest. A power struggle has emerged between the NDL government and the Tatmadaw junta now in charge. One argument is, therefore, that the military junta is boosting ethnic tensions in Myanmar in part to take full advantage of the Monks’ dispute with the NDL government.

To break the unholy nexus between Myanmar’s military junta and the Monks, the country needs to establish a strong representative democracy. A crackdown on xenophobia, universal sanctions on companies which backed the junta regime, interfaith counseling, and, above all, the development of a secular education system will be necessary for the growth of interaction between ethnic communities in Myanmar.

Sauid Ahmed Khan is a freelance writer & Graduate of Department of Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Dhaka.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.