Myanmar’s army is losing – and facing fire from a militant monk

Myanmar's military chief Min Aung Hlaing stands in a car as he oversees a military display at a parade ground to mark the country's Independence Day in Naypyidaw on January 4, 2023.
Image caption,Min Aung Hlaing has led Myanmar since 2021 when he ousted the elected government

Last Tuesday, a noisy crowd of several hundred people stood in the small main square of Pyin Oo Lwin, a popular Myanmar hill town, to hear a bespectacled monk make a startling suggestion.

Min Aung Hlaing, the country’s military ruler, should step aside, he said, and let his deputy General Soe Win take over.

The man who led the 2021 coup against the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi, provoking a catastrophic civil war, has faced plenty of international censure, and is loathed by much of Myanmar’s population.

This though was criticism from an unusual quarter. The monk, Pauk Ko Taw, is part of an ultra-nationalist fringe of the Buddhist clergy, which has until now been staunchly behind the military junta.

But a series of crushing defeats suffered by the army at the hands of ethnic insurgents in recent weeks has prompted Min Aung Hlaing’s one-time cheerleaders to reconsider.

Running out of friends

“Look at Soe Win’s face,” Pauk Ko Taw said to the crowd. “That’s the face of a real soldier. Min Aung Hlaing is not coping. He should move to a civilian role.”

It is not clear what kind of backing Pauk Ko Taw has in the armed forces. But his comments echo those made by other junta supporters, who are increasingly frustrated by the seeming inability of Myanmar’s military leaders to turn the tide against their opponents. Pauk Ko Taw declined to be interviewed by BBC Burmese.

That he chose to give his speech in Pyin Oo Lwin will have added weight to it. The one-time British colonial hill-station is now home to the prestigious Defence Services Academy, where the army’s top brass are trained. They could hardly miss the thinly-veiled warning: that they are running out of friends.

Pauk Ko Taw with members of Myanmar's military
Image caption,Pauk Ko Taw is pictured here in a file photo with members of the pro-junta Democratic Karen Buddhist Army militia

The nexus between the military and monkhood is nothing new.

Burmese monks have a long tradition of political, often anti-authority activism, from the anti-colonial movements of the 1930s to uprisings against military rule in 1988 and 2007. Many opposed the 2021 coup, some abandoning their robes to take up arms against the junta.

But some have worked with the generals, sharing with them a belief that both Buddhism and Burmese culture need defending from outside influences.

Following violent clashes between local Buddhists and Muslim Rohingyas in Rakhine State in 2012, one militant monk, Wirathu, helped set up a movement known as Ma Ba Tha, or the Association for Protection of Race and Religion.

It encouraged a boycott of Muslim-owned businesses, claiming that Burmese Buddhism was in danger of being wiped out by Muslims. But they make up just 8% of the Myanmar population. The movement was officially disbanded in 2017, but has continued to enjoy military support.

Wirathu, who had earlier been jailed for inciting racial conflict, was jailed once again in 2020. But less than a year later he was freed by the military – and Min Aung Hlaing showered him with honours and cash.

Min Aung Hlaing’s coup in February 2021 provoked a huge public backlash, with massive rallies demanding a return to democratic rule, which were brutally put down. The 67-year-old general has since sought to bolster his legitimacy by presenting himself as a champion of Buddhism.

State media puts out a continuous stream of reports showing the diminutive dictator lavishing gifts on temples, and as a pallbearer at the funerals of senior abbots.

He has also been seen laying the foundation stone of the world’s largest seated Buddha statue in the capital Nay Pyi Taw, funded by his military administration.

Myanmar’s top religious body, the governing Buddhist council or State Sangha, has said little publicly about the coup. Some of its members are believed to have quietly urged restraint on the generals. But one senior monk in the Sangha, Sitagu Sayadaw, has openly supported the military, and even travelled with Min Aung Hlaing on an arms-buying trip to Russia.

Other monks have gone even further. One of Wirathu’s followers, Wathawa, has been helping set up armed militia groups in his home state of Sagaing, to challenge the volunteer People’s Defence Forces, which have sprung up all over the state to fight the junta.

Photos posted on social media carry the jarring image of saffron-robed monks being shown how to fire rifles.

Nationalist Buddhist monks hold posters with the image of detained monk Ashin Wirathu during a demonstration in front of a court house in Yangon on November 3, 2020.
Image caption,Wirathu’s arrest in 2020 led to demonstrations by other ultra-nationalist monks

The militias – named Pyusawhti after a mythological Burmese king – have been accused of forcibly recruiting local men, and of multiple atrocities against civilians. But they have taken root only in the small number of communities where the military’s own party is traditionally strong. They also appear to have been ineffective in countering the now extensive and organised opposition to military rule.

One man contacted by the BBC in the area where Wathawa has been mobilising since early 2022 said he had only been able to recruit a maximum of 10-15 men in each village, and then only by threatening to burn down their homes.

He said many of the recruits had run away, and were being helped by other villagers to hide from Wathawa and his gun-toting monks.

An army on the retreat

Now the shambolic performance of the army in its recent battles with ethnic armed groups is sowing doubts in the minds of its supporters.

One prominent blogger recently called Min Aung Hlaing “incompetent”, saying that under him the country had experienced loss and shame of historic proportions, for which he should pay the price and step down.

He was referring to the huge swathes of territory in northern Shan State taken by insurgents from the Brotherhood Alliance, three ethnic armies which now control much of the border with China.=

They launched their operation in October last year, culminating in the surrender of thousands of soldiers, and all their equipment. The bloody two-year stalemate, between the well-equipped armed forces and the hundreds of volunteer groups which had risen up and joined the ethnic insurgents to fight the junta, appeared to have been broken.

The army has continued to retreat in the first weeks of this year. On the other side of the country near the Bangladesh border, the Arakan Army, one of the three groups in the alliance, has taken over several military bases, giving it control of large areas of Chin and Rakhine States.

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