Nearly 40 Buddhist clergy have been killed, and 40 others jailed, since Myanmar’s military took control of the country in a coup last year, according to data compiled by RFA’s Myanmar Service.
The 38 monks and one nun were killed between Feb. 1, 2021 — the day the military seized power — and mid-April 2022, RFA found through analysis of junta press releases, local media reports and interviews with sources.
A recent statement by the junta claimed that 33 monks were killed, and seven others injured, in a single April 3 attack by prodemocracy People’s Defense Force (PDF) paramilitaries, a group the military regime has accused of terrorism. RFA was unable to independently verify the claims made by the junta.
RFA’s own records, based on sources and local media reports, show that at least five monks were arrested and killed by junta authorities for alleged links to PDF groups, while another 38 monks are being held in various prisons throughout the country.
Residents and Buddhist leaders from Mandalay region’s Madaya township told RFA that on April 3 a PDF unit killed a monk from the township’s Kin village for allegedly working as an informer for the military. In retaliation, they said, the military arrested the head of the area monastic school Pinnya Wuntha, who later died in detention after being interrogated by troops.
Than Lone, a member of the PDF in neighboring Mingin township, told RFA that with the exception of those with ties to groups such as the pro-junta Pyu Saw Htee militia, the PDF had never killed a Buddhist clergy member.
“We can boldly say that no PDF units have killed any civilians … as long as they were not Dalans (informers),” he said.
“No comrade would have done that kind of killing. We are all connected. We might get rid of Dalans or Pyu Saw Htee members, but no one else.”
Than Lone said that the PDFs were formed “to protect the public” from the military and said they “would never do anything that would upset the people.”
Another report on the alleged killing of a monk by the military was relayed to RFA on Sunday by residents of Thabyethar village in Sagaing region’s Wuntho township, who said troops shot and killed the village abbot after he tried to stop them from setting fire to area homes.
When asked by RFA about reports of the killing and arrests of Buddhist clergy, junta deputy information minister, Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun, said that military has only arrested monks in rare circumstances.
“When it comes to arrests, the government rarely does that to monks,” he said. “In some places, so-called PDF terrorist fighters are operating under the guise of being monks. When we find out who they really are, we must take legal action.”
Zaw Min Tun did not comment on reports of the military killing monks.
Ma Ba Tha monks
Last month, a video went viral on social media in Myanmar purportedly showing monks with the hardline Ma Ba Tha group on a “tour” of several pro-junta villages in Sagaing in support of forming Pyu Saw Htee units. The video appears to show the monks helping to train people and delivering Buddhist sermons.
In one clip, Ma Ba Tha leaders known as “sayadaws” appear to be holding guns in their hands and telling residents that the PDFs are killing people and setting fire to villages.
Sources told RFA that the footage was filmed on Feb. 27 at the Yadanar Kan Myint Htei Monastery during a Pyu Saw Htee training camp graduation ceremony in Taze township’s Kabe village. They confirmed that pro-junta monks have been “carrying guns” and “taking part in some of the fighting” in the region.
A woman in Monywa region, speaking on condition of anonymity for security reasons, blamed the deaths of the 38 clergy and many other civilians on the country’s leading monks, who she said had failed to intervene and stop the military’s crackdown on opponents to its rule.
“I’m heartbroken that [they] didn’t stop the junta from committing violence and killings,” she said.
According to the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, authorities have killed at least 1,782 civilians and arrested nearly 10,300 others since the Feb. 1, 2021, coup, mostly during peaceful anti-junta protests.
Attempts by RFA to contact the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Group, a Yangon-based Buddhist monastic order, for comment on the reported killings went unanswered Monday.
Ashin Rajadhamma, a member of the Sangha Union in Mandalay, said true monks should not be engaged in weapons training or acting as informants for the military.
“National politics doesn’t call for monks to be involved in an armed struggle,” he said.
“Historically, the involvement of the monks [in politics] was nonviolent. We stand by doing the right thing. That’s why we express our wishes in a non-violent way. We take part in peaceful street protests. That’s how monks should be involved in national politics.”
Of the 38 monks RFA confirmed to be held in prison since the coup, most are from the regions of Mandalay, Sagaing, Bago, Tanintharyi, Ayeyawaddy, Magway and Yangon.
Among them are Thaw Bita (Alinga Kyeh) and Tay Zaniya (Mandalay Hill), two prominent monks with ties to the deposed National League for Democracy (NLD) party who were arrested on the day of the power grab. Thaw Bita was later sentenced to a two-year jail term by a prison court.
There are more than 500,000 Buddhist monks and 600,000 nuns in Myanmar, and while they are aligned in their veneration of the Buddha, their political interests vary. Some Buddhist clergy are outspoken proponents of democracy, while others support the junta for what they say is its protection of religious values.
Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.