Buddhist monasteries are usually known as places of solace and meditation. But one in Myanmar’s biggest city became the site of an ugly brawl in the aftermath of the Feb. 1 military coup.

Monks were among a group that used slingshots to injure anti-coup protesters who went to Yangon’s Bingalar Monastery on Feb. 18 in pursuit of men dressed in robes who had earlier beaten up a demonstrator. The mob also used large sticks to smash cars blocking traffic nearby.

The monks and their supporters “couldn’t control their temper,” said Kaythara, the abbot of the nationalist Buddhist group Wirawintha, who knows the attackers but wasn’t present at the melee. He defended the military, known as the Tatmadaw, repeating its theory that now now-detained civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s party stole the November election through mass voter fraud.

“Different people have different perspectives about the Tatmadaw takeover,” Kaythara said. “The Tatmadaw had to carry out its responsibility in accordance with the constitution.”

The violent incident shows a strain of religious nationalism that Myanmar’s generals are tapping into as they seek to gain legitimacy and quell post-coup demonstrations that have seen more than 60 people killed. That risks reinvigorating a movement with a history of sectarian violence in a nation already split between the military supporters and opponents.

With Buddhists accounting for about 90% of Myanmar’s 54 million people, the monastic order, or Sangha, plays an instrumental role in granting legitimacy to govern. And for decades it has been caught in the middle of an intense ideological struggle between the military and more liberal forces in Myanmar.

Symbiotic relationship

“There has always been a kind of symbiotic relationship in Myanmar between rulers, kings, governments, regimes and the Buddhist monks,” said Richard Horsey, a Yangon-based political analyst and senior adviser with the International Crisis Group. “The military will be relying on a relationship with at least a part of the Sangha to legitimize its rule, to provide religious services to the regime and their leaders and so forth.”

The military has sought to ramp up its religious and nationalist credentials since the coup. State media regularly publicizes activities carried out by officials, such as cleaning up pagodas as the military rushed to reopen them after seizing power. The head spokesman of Myanmar’s military junta didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.

Protesters run after tear gas was fired during a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon, Myanmar, on Tuesday. | AFP-JIJI
Protesters run after tear gas was fired during a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon, Myanmar, on Tuesday. | AFP-JIJI

The newly appointed minister for religious affairs and culture met with and donated cash to Sitagu Sayadaw, an influential monk who has promoted anti-Rohingya rhetoric. The military has installed nationalist sympathizers to key government positions and released high-profile anti-Muslim voices from prison as part of a general amnesty of more than 23,000 prisoners.

“Religion and secular governance have always been entangled in Myanmar,” said Winnie Thaw, a recent Burmese graduate of politics from a U.K. university. “And that’s not likely to change under the new junta.”

Pro-democracy monks were instrumental during anti-junta protests in the bloody 1988 uprising, and also helped lead 2007 demonstrations dubbed the Saffron Revolution for the color of their robes. Some of them have been at the forefront of the recent protests, leading demonstrators in major cities and holding posters calling for the immediate release of Suu Kyi and other detainees.

But another group of nationalist monks is backing the military. This strain viewed Suu Kyi’s government as promoting a Western liberal outlook that elevated religious diversity over protection of the Buddhist faith, according to a 2017 report by International Crisis Group.

Even before the Rohingya crisis reached a boiling point in 2017, sectarian violence between Buddhists and Muslims had long simmered. In one example, dozens died in 2012 riots sparked by the rape and murder of an ethnic Rakhine woman in western Myanmar after monks distributed incendiary pamphlets alleging members of the Muslim minority were to blame for the crime.

Shortly after taking office after a landmark election win in 2015, Suu Kyi’s government tried to engage with groups including the monk-led Patriotic Association of Myanmar — then known as Ma Ba Tha — to scale back its anti-Muslim rhetoric. At the time, she was fresh into a power-sharing arrangement with the military, which was guaranteed 25% of parliamentary seats by the constitution — giving it an effective veto over any amendments.

But many supporters of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party felt it wasn’t doing enough to “ensure the protected and special place of Buddhism in public life,” said Melyn McKay, a research anthropologist at the University of Oxford who has published work on Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar.

Saffron monks take part in a protest against the military coup in Yangon, Myanmar, last month. | REUTERS
Saffron monks take part in a protest against the military coup in Yangon, Myanmar, last month. | REUTERS

Unified fight

Suu Kyi’s balancing act to win over nationalist factions while also cooling anti-Muslim rhetoric became untenable in 2017 after Rohingya militants attacked police and army outposts in Rakhine state, boosting public support for the military. Suu Kyi went on to defend the generals at the International Court of Justice against allegations of genocide, which increased her popularity at home at the expense of her international reputation.

The belief that Buddhism is somehow under threat “can be drawn upon by political actors as a means of building support, but to do so successfully the government in power must be seen as acting in the best interest of the Buddhist people,” said McKay from the University of Oxford.

Even if such tactics to sow divisions worked in the past, they may not necessarily be effective this time, said Khin San Hlaing, a member of the NLD’s central executive committee.

“Their efforts to utilize religion as a tool to stir chaos will not be as effective as they expected,” she said. “People are protecting each other, regardless of religion or nationality, because they are all fighting for the end of the military dictatorship.”

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