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Myanmar Crisis

Monks join Myanmar rally, demanding release of Suu Kyi

Influential religious figures pose dilemma for military touting Buddhism

Monks protest in Yangon on Feb. 16 with signs decrying the coup by Myanmar's military.   © Reuters

BANGKOK -- Massive crowds gathered Wednesday on the streets of Yangon to protest against the Myanmar military's coup and demand the release of ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, buoyed by the participation of influential monks the previous day.

Demonstrations in Myanmar's largest city had dwindled in size over the past several days amid intimidation by the military, but expanded sharply again on Wednesday.

The previous day, at least 30 to 40 monks clad in maroon robes protested in Yangon, some chanting through megaphones as they walked down the street. Many held signs in English saying "reject [the] military coup," while others carried a banner reading "monks who don't want a military dictatorship." Speaking to foreign media, they urged the international community to support the movement.

The rebound also followed a news conference by the military on Tuesday, its first since seizing power Feb. 1, that stoked anger among protesters.

A member of the Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy, the party that won a resounding victory in November's general election, urged protesters not to believe the junta's claims that it would hold another vote. The military had used the election to justify the coup, claiming fraud.

Monks hold great sway over public opinion in the country, which is 90% Buddhist and where they are revered as "sons of Buddha." Many stood at the forefront of demonstrations against the old junta in 2007, helping to give the movement staying power.

The country was estimated to have 400,000 monks at the time, mainly in Yangon and Mandalay, Myanmar's second-largest city. The number is unlikely to have declined, given that the population has grown and all men are expected to spend at least some time at a monastery. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency pegs Myanmar's population at more than 57 million this year.

The monks' participation in the current protests puts the military in a tricky position, given junta leader Min Aung Hlaing's emphasis on Buddhism. The military chief visited a monastery in Naypyitaw, Myanmar's capital, following the coup. Buddhist religious sites previously closed to curb the spread of the coronavirus have been reopened, and military television has shown soldiers cleaning at temples.

The filing of new charges Tuesday against Suu Kyi to extend her house arrest has also infuriated much of the public. Her NLD won around 80% of available seats in last year's election.

The junta denied at Tuesday's news conference that the seizure of power was a "coup," asserting that it was in keeping with the constitution. But public support seems clearly on the side of the civilian government, in which Suu Kyi served as the de facto leader through the role of state counselor.

U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters that Washington was "disturbed" by the reports of additional charges against Suu Kyi. In the U.K., Myanmar's former colonial ruler, Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the charges "fabricated" and "a clear violation of her human rights."

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