CHIANG MAI, Thailand -- In the days following Myanmar's Feb. 1 coup, social media abounded with scenes of angry protesters and brutal security forces. Among them were pictures of Buddhist monks, often standing silently with candles or marching with placards denouncing the military.
But monks have played a far less prominent part in the events of 2021 than in previous anti-military protests, when they were often in the front lines, reflecting their deeply ingrained role in the lives of Myanmar's people and their sympathy with popular opposition to the army, which has clung to power for most of the past six decades.
Monks were key participants in the tumultuous anti-regime uprising of 1988, for example, and were among the leaders of the 2007 "Saffron Revolution," so named for the color of their robes. Although Buddhist clergy are directed to shun involvement in worldly affairs, their political activism stretches back to the struggle for independence from the U.K. in 1948.
This time around, though, Myanmar's half a million monks have not responded with a united front to the military's ouster of the democratically elected civilian government, in the wake of which over 1,000 people have been killed.
Few saffron robes have been seen among the mass of protesters, and a relatively small number of monks have been among the many thousands of civilians detained in the months after Feb. 1. Some prominent monks have remained silent or even declared support for the military regime. Fundamental, festering differences have split the ranks of the sangha, the Buddhist clergy.
"A singular premise of Buddhism is to alleviate suffering. Buddhists and non-Buddhists are experiencing tremendous suffering caused by the violence," says Paul Fuller, a Buddhism expert at Bath Spa University in England. "It goes without saying that Buddhist leaders should be voicing their concerns to alleviate this suffering."
But times have changed. Following a harsh crackdown against the activist monks of 2007, the military has wooed, infiltrated and partly co-opted the monkhood, positioning itself as a defender of Buddhism against perceived enemies, especially the country's Muslim minority. Even well before the coup, the military and some racist monks were tapping into a latent xenophobic strain among the country's mainly Buddhist ethnic Burman majority to target Muslims and other minorities. An old ultranationalist slogan was reactivated: "To be Burmese means to be Buddhist."
Communal violence followed, culminating in 2017 with a ruthless military campaign against the Rohingya Muslims in northern Rakhine State, which drove about 750,000 refugees into neighboring Bangladesh.
Some leading monks, with thousands of lay followers, condoned the Rakhine massacres, describing Muslims as "mad dogs" and "cannibals" seeking to eradicate Buddhism, which accounts for about 90% of religious affiliation in Myanmar. The monks' hate speech was likened by some to Hitler's demonization of Jews.
"In the past decade or so the links between the military and many Buddhist monks have strengthened," says Benedict Rogers, a senior analyst at the human rights group Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which focuses on freedom of religion and defense of persecuted religious minorities. "Regrettably, the ultranationalist Buddhist monks either support the coup or at least feel divided loyalties."
Before and since the coup, the military has courted the sangha, renovating monasteries, organizing religious activities and offering huge donations to favored monks. A pet project of coup leader Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing has been the erection of a massive image of the Buddha in the capital, Naypyitaw, which state media said would be the world's biggest such statue in marble. An elaborate ceremony at the site, attended by the general and senior monks, was held on March 26, a day after clashes in which troops killed nine protesters.
It is difficult to assess the proportion of monks who stand with the generals, those who avoid politics and those staunchly opposed to the military regime. Among the more than 7,600 civilians arrested to date, only 29 have been monks, according to the independent Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. Two have been sentenced to imprisonment.
Monks have joined some demonstrations, especially in Mandalay, the heartbeat of Myanmar's Buddhism, which is home to about 80,000 monks. And the military takeover may have diminished -- at least for the time being -- the power of hard-line, xenophobic monks while fostering unity among Buddhist, Christian and Muslim opponents of the regime.
In one unprecedented move toward interfaith and ethnic harmony a Christian of the Chin minority, known only as Dr. Sasa, has emerged as a minister and key international spokesman for the National Unity Government, a parallel government formed by anti-regime activists.
"This military coup has weakened ultranationalists, anti-Muslim groups and their organizations because now people no longer believe the propaganda of the military and their puppets against other races and religions," says Agga Wuntha, a prominent Mandalay monk and protest leader, told Nikkei Asia. The junta has charged him with criminal offenses.
Speaking from his hiding place, Agga Wuntha, from the Seitta Thukha Padamya monastery, expressed apologies to the Rohingya for not helping them enough during their ordeal. "Whoever suffers from the brutality of the military, we feel that we also suffer," he added.
However, his sentiments are not shared by some other monks. Sitagu Sayadaw, one of the country's most prominent monks, was once a fierce critic of the military, but has recently developed close ties to Min Aung Hlaing. The 84-year-old monk has told military officers that violence against Muslims is justifiable.
Kovida, another high-profile religious leader, also has links to the general and his wife, and offered coup leaders astrological advice on staging the takeover, according to The Irrawaddy, an independent Burmese news site. Seeking astrological guidance is common in Myanmar politics.
In March, the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee, a government-appointed body of senior monks, issued a plea for the violence to cease. But it refrained from any criticism of the coup makers. The committee, set up to regulate the sangha, has been used by the government to suppress political activities by monastics, and is composed of elderly, traditional monks who enjoy numerous privileges.
The 47-member body has not invoked the ultimate moral rebuke against the military -- patam nikkujjana kamma, the turning over of alms bowls -- although some monks and lay people have done so individually. By this injunction monks refuse to accept food and other offerings, thus denying the giver any religious merit that would follow from such a deed. This form of excommunication is seen as protecting Buddhism against threats and is an exception to the rule of noninvolvement by monks in secular affairs.
Some scholars believe that at its core the monkhood in Myanmar may be more directed toward shielding the religion than democratic ideals. Embedded in Theravada Buddhism, the dominant branch in Southeast Asia, is a historical, symbiotic relationship with kings rather than elected leaders.
"Is there a danger that the monks and their conservative and popularist Buddhism hinders democracy?" Fuller asks. "This is why the important messages in the protests are coming from the younger generation, 'Generation Z,' which is operating across religious cultures, and accepts that genocide against the Rohingya occurred."
Monks who have decisively cast their lot with the pro-democracy side, many of whom are also members of the younger generation, are as vulnerable and as brave as any protester. If earlier methods are being followed, monks are stripped of their robes after being arrested, then referred to only by their lay names. All risk being tortured, according to opposition activists and some released prisoners.
"We don't know when the military will kiss us or torture us," says Agga Wuntha. "We are living with fear," the monk adds, warning that the military's actions are pushing Myanmar toward a civil war. He pleads for international support, but one protest placard he has carried read: "Ask not what the U.N. or the U.S. will do for us. Ask what you can do for your country. Then do as much as you can. That's the way we can achieve our goals."
The military is adept at divide-and-rule strategies, but Rogers believes that there is room for optimism because the coup has sparked a vision of a multiethnic, multireligious democratic future for Myanmar, uniting people in a "way that is new and perhaps profound."
It is also early days in the fight against the coup, and the monks could yet emerge as a potent force, in spite of their divisions and overall passivity thus far. Sylwia Gil, a Polish expert on Buddhism, notes that after cyclone Nargis, which killed more than 90,000 people in 2008, the sangha was the first organized group to rush aid to survivors.
In Myanmar’s latest disaster, the COVID-19 epidemic, monks have died by the scores while volunteering to carry the dead, find oxygen and help distribute food to victims. But they have been unable, or unwilling, to organize in the same concerted manner as during the cyclone.
As the virus ravages the country, the junta has urged people to daily recite verses of the Ratana Sutta, a Buddhist discourse some faithful believe can ward off diseases, and it has sent monks up in helicopters to sprinkle holy water over infected areas. But one monk wrote on Facebook: “What people need is oxygen, and not the verses.”