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The Khomeinis of Burmese Theravada Buddhism: Buddhist monks, Military Junta & Political Buddhism

The Khomeinis of Burmese Theravada Buddhism: Buddhist monks, Military Junta & Political Buddhism

Myanmar has been in turmoil for eighteen months since the military overthrew a democratically elected government in February 2021. During these eighteen months, people in Myanmar have lost their houses, dreams, loved ones, and belongings. In response to the war crimes committed by the military junta and their reactionary fascism, people all over Myanmar have decided to take up arms against the coup to preserve the authenticity of the democratic government they elected. However, many other people have decided to support the military junta for several reasons. Among them, assuming the military junta as the regime protecting Buddhism from other religions such as Islam and Christianity is one of the most common reasons for some.

As a Theravada Buddhist country, monks are recognized as the perfect moral teachers in Myanmar. Historically, Burmese Buddhist monks frequently assist in community organization. Occasionally, they have even organized resistance against the military administrations that have dominated the nation for over 60 years. Monks led protests against fuel price increases in 2007 and organized relief activities in the wake of Cyclone Nargis in 2008 amid junta inaction. However, this nationally united Buddhist clergy was divided tremendously over the underlying cause of the most recent coup. While a minority of monks have joined the anti-junta demonstrations on the streets, several well-known religious figures and many Burmese monks have also defended the military junta. In this article, let me introduce some of the most popular and influential religious clerics who have come to support the military junta in the name of political Buddhism.

Mainstream Political Buddhism

Time magazine featured a Buddhist ultranationalist monk, Wirathu, as the “Face of Buddhist Terror” back in 2013. With the media spotlight against Ashin Wirathu, the existence of a nationwide sangha vanguard organisation of which Wirathu himself was a member, namely MaBaTha (Patriotic Association of Myanmar) was also introduced to the global public. MaBaTha was founded by a handful of nationalist monks who led anti-Muslim campaigns such as 969 movements and other riots.

Sitagu Sayadaw

In the wake of the revolution, more and more young people are starting to have more exposure to the indigenous idea of sex, gender, and free love. Sayadaw Sitagu, the founder of Sitagu International Buddhist Academy, stated in a Dhamma discourse that he fervently hopes same-sex marriage to never be legalized in Myanmar. As a monk on the Board of World Religious Leaders for the Elijah Interfaith Institute, his influence on the religious community is tremendous. Furthermore, his organization has contributed money to various social projects in Burma, such as the building of water pumps and clinics such as the Sitagu Ayudana Hospital in Sagaing and the Sitagu Buddhist Academy. With his influence within the Buddhist community, his blatantly expressing this kind of homophobic statement is problematic for marginalized individuals who practice same-sex marriage and lifestyles. In addition, he recently became a supreme patriarch of the Shwegyin Nikaya, the second largest monastic order of monks in Burma during the military junta era, after showing his solidarity with the military junta against the pro-democracy wings in the name of anti-imperialism.

Vasipake Sayadaw

Vimala Bhaddanta Ashin Kovida, commonly known as Vasipake Sayadaw because he vows silent practice which has nothing to do with Buddhism, is a Buddhist monk who practices astrology and the occult. He is thought to be the astrologer for Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the leader of the military regime. Vasipake was a crucial player in the recent coup d’état. In 2006, when Senior General Min Aung Hlaing was serving as the commanding officer of the Triangle Region of the Myanmar military, he became an adherent of Ashin Kovida. Ashin Kovida has been blamed for giving Min Aung Hlaing astrological guidance to overthrow the democratically elected government. He is accused of suggesting to the top general about shooting demonstrators in the head. Most people who protested against the regime suffered head wounds in the early stages of the junta crackdown. When Min Aung Hlaing noticed the images of this monk putting on female undergarments, he ordered his soldiers to remove the women’s clothing and made a public announcement in his state-run publications that anyone doing so would be charged with blasphemy for insulting Buddhism.

Dhammaduta Sayadaw

Dr. Ashin Chekinda is the founder and first chancellor of Dhammaduta Chekinda University. He also teaches Buddhist meditation courses at the government-sponsored International Theravada Buddhist Missionary University (ITBMU). Even though international media knew about Wirathu and the 969 movements, most of the media, including local media outlets, didn’t know about the connection between Dhammaduta Sayadaw and MaBaTha organization. Back in the 2010s, under the pseudo-democratic para-military government of U Thein Sein, U Thein Sein met with Dhammaduta Sayadaw to discuss the strategy to pursue support from the Burmese monks. After his discussion with Dhammaduta Sayadaw, U Thein Sein and his para-military government officially started to advocate for political Buddhism and ultranationalism. Dhammaduta Sayadaw tried to persuade some sangha council members who led the 2007 Saffron Revolution to join their nationalist cause over the pro-democracy struggle. However, it’s reported that most of the leaders of the Saffron Revolution refused his offer. Later, Ashin Chekinda, with the help of influential nationalist monks together, managed to advocate for the establishment of a vanguard organization for political Buddhism called “MaBaTha.” Recently, even after the recent coup, instead of joining the pro-democracy monk unions, he made compromises with the military junta to become the chancellor of ITBMU. He was silent for at least one year after the coup. Later, he got the media’s attention with the news of his being promoted as the chancellor of ITBMU. He was recently seen in Russia with Sitagu Sayadaw and General Min Aung Hlaing.

Thabarwa Sayadaw

Thabarwa Sayadaw is a vipassana and mindfulness teacher and is the most hypocritical one on the list. For some people, he is known to be someone who had attained a certain kind of enlightenment. Moreover, he is popular among the western Theravada Buddhist communities. He has links with progressive Burmese communities such as “Insight Myanmar” and tricycle, a progressive Buddhist media platform. He is the abbot of The Thabarwa center, which was initially established on three acres in the Thanlyin area donated by a retired military officer, U Kyaw Aye. The way he became the head of his meditation center itself explained why he was biased toward the military during the wake of the recent coup. According to him, once people understand things better and are appropriately educated, they won’t be religious anymore and start abandoning the conservative values of the religions. Thus, he precisely concluded that there is no other way for him as a religious preacher but to endorse the military junta as the military junta is at least willing to defend the conservative values empowered by religious morality. Likewise, he once lectured a female celebrity figure actively helping female rape case victims. He said, “being raped means that the victim raped or did something bad to the other stakeholder in a previous life.” Many progressive people are disgusted by his sexist victim-blaming mindset and his support towards the military dictatorship.

Maha Bodhi Myaing Sayadaw

80-year-old Buddhist monk Maha Bodhi Myaing Sayadaw is very influential for his adherence to ascetic traditions and minimalist lifestyle. He is commonly considered a mystical figure in Myanmar by most Buddhists, especially the people in the Sagaing area. The “people’s defense forces” and junta troops have engaged in some of the heaviest confrontations around Sagaing. The military junta is being accused of torching homes and committing war crimes. However, he was silent and stayed neutral amidst the war crimes committed by the military junta.

He recently met with Wirathu, also known as the face of Buddhist Terror, and discussed how to protect Buddhism from other religious groups. Despite his popularity as a mystical meditation guru, he used to write nationalist and chauvinist poems in the past. Even during his meeting with Wirathu, he explicitly parroted the conspiracy theory against the Rohingya people. He and Wirathu were discussing the conspiracy against the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. In one of his poems, he expressed his xenophobic idea of labeling the non-Buddhist population of Myanmar as foreigners and advocated protecting Buddhism from other religions.

Sayadaw Ashin Nandamalabhivamsa

Nandamalabhivamsa is the retired rector of Sitagu International Buddhist Academy and a retired associate head of Shwegyin Nikaya. He is a pseudoscience believer who plays a similar role to Dr. Zakir Naik, a laughing stock for the intellectuals, but an intelligent figure for naive people. He once tried to refute the science by saying, “people think the sea level in the beach increases with the help of gravitational force from the moon according to contemporary science, but according to his understanding of Buddhist science, the sea level increase due to the leak of water from the stones in the sea with the help of the light of the moon”. Besides, he once criticized Darwin’s evolution theory as insufficient and started a hypothesis of human existence before the earth appeared by citing some Buddhist scriptures. He even claimed that the whole story of human evolution is not evolution but regression according to the Buddhist scriptures he believed in. These statements themselves show the level of pseudoscience poisoning susceptible Buddhists in Myanmar.

Moreover, he used to hold dharma question and answer sessions with Nay Shwe Thwe Aung, the grandson of the previous military dictator, U Than Shwe. Nay Shwe Thwe Aung, an elite with a first-class education and wealth, always wanted a superstar-like reputation from the people, even though most hated the whole family because they killed countless people for decades. However, Nandamalabhivamsa, with his religious reputation, decided to help Nay Shwe Thwe Aung, an oligarch family member, and a political time bomb, to become a normalized social media celebrity.

As stated above, these individuals are trying to pursue their interests to become religious and political leaders. To do so, they have to create external enemies to unite the people within Buddhist society. In this way, they have to develop a religious nationalism that is hostile towards the other religions. In this way, they’re paving multiple ways toward a new wave of fascism and the religious government of Ruhollah Khomeini from Iran.

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Hein is a radical atheist who is actively struggling against the state blasphemy laws of Myanmar. Hein is also a hacktivist who is currently pushing back against the state censorship in Myanmar in favour of censored sceptical religious reformists and their progressive teachings through the use of technology. Hein currently acts as a spokesperson for an atheist/humanist vanguard organisation in Myanmar called Burmese Atheists.