An ultra-nationalist fringe of the Buddhist clergy in Myanmar is demanding that Min Aung Hlaing, the country’s military dictator, stand down and his deputy, General Soe Win, should take over.
The man who organised the 2021 coup against Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government, resulting in a devastating civil war, has received widespread worldwide condemnation and is despised by the majority of Myanmar’s people.
This, however, was criticism from an uncommon quarter. The monk, Pauk Ko Taw, is a member of the Buddhist clergy’s ultra-nationalist fringe, which has previously supported the military junta.
However, a succession of severe setbacks suffered by the army at the hands of ethnic militants in recent weeks has caused Min Aung Hlaing’s former supporters to reconsider, the BBC reports.
“Look at Soe Win’s face,” Pauk Ko Taw remarked to the audience. “That is the face of a real soldier. Min Aung Hlaing is not coping. He should transition to a civilian position.”
It is unclear what kind of support Pauk Ko Taw has in the military. His remarks, however, echo those of other junta loyalists, who are growing increasingly unhappy with Myanmar’s military authorities’ apparent inability to turn the tide against their opponents. Pauk Ko Taw declined an interview with BBC Burmese.
The fact that he opted to deliver his speech in Pyin Oo Lwin will add to its impact. The famed Defence Services Academy trains the army’s senior leadership and now calls the former British colonial hill outpost home. They couldn’t ignore the carefully veiled warning: they ran out of pals.
Burmese monks have a long history of political activism, typically against the authorities, ranging from anti-colonial activities in the 1930s to uprisings against the military government in 1988 and 2007. Many people protested the 2021 coup, with some even removing their robes to fight the junta.
However, some have collaborated with the generals, believing that Buddhism and Burmese culture require protection from outside influences.
Following deadly battles between local Buddhists and Muslim Rohingyas in Rakhine State in 2012, one militant monk, Wirathu, helped establish the Ma Ba Tha movement, also known as the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion.
It promoted a boycott of Muslim-owned companies, stating that Muslims were threatening to eradicate Burmese Buddhism. However, they make up only 8% of Myanmar’s population. The movement was officially abolished in 2017 but continues to get military assistance.
Wirathu, who had previously been imprisoned for instigating ethnic violence, was arrested again in 2020. But less than a year later, he was released by the military, and Min Aung Hlaing lavished him with medals and money.
Min Aung Hlaing’s coup in February 2021 sparked widespread popular outrage, with major rallies seeking a return to democratic rule that was brutally suppressed. The 67-year-old general has now attempted to boost his credibility by portraying himself as a Buddhist champion.
State media broadcasts a steady stream of images of the small tyrant bestowing presents on temples and serving as a pallbearer at senior abbots’ funerals.
He was also seen laying the groundwork for the world’s largest seated Buddha monument in the capital, Nay Pyi Taw, funded by his military regime.
Myanmar’s leading religious group, the governing Buddhist council or State Sangha, has made few public statements concerning the coup. Some members are said to have privately advised the generals to exercise restraint. However, one senior monk in the Sangha, Sitagu Sayadaw, has publicly supported the military, even accompanying Min Aung Hlaing on an arms-buying mission to Russia.
Other monks went even further. Wathawa, one of Wirathu’s disciples, has been assisting in forming armed militia organisations in his native state of Sagaing to compete with the volunteer People’s Defence Forces that have cropped up around the state to combat the junta.
Pauk Ko Taw’s outspoken criticism from last week’s stage has touched a nerve. The military then held and questioned him before being immediately freed, implying that he had considerable backing. While official media covered his rally, his statements against Min Aung Hlaing were not.
Gen Soe Win, the man Pauk Ko Taw was encouraging to take charge of the army, is said to be dissatisfied with his troops’ poor performance.
However, he has not indicated his intention to take over his boss’s position. At the time, it didn’t appear certain that this would alter.
Min Aung Hlaing has also demonstrated an ability to promote and marginalise potential competitors. Last September, Moe Myint Tun, the general regarded to be his most likely successor, was caught and sentenced to life in prison for corruption.
Despite the junta’s most fervent supporters’ hopes for a knight in shining armour to come and restore morale in the ranks, no replacement is in sight.
Even after stunning war defeats, Min Aung Hlaing has continued to preside over ceremonial occasions, more like a monarch than a military commander.