Death of the Controversial Myaing Gyi Ngu Monk

By Lawi Weng 15 October 2018

The Myaing Gyi Ngu Sayadaw, a respected ethnic Karen Buddhist monk known locally as U Thuzana, passed away on Saturday at the age of 71 in a hospital in Bangkok, Thailand according to sources from Karen State.

U Thuzana’s remains were flown to Mae Sot at the Thai-Myanmar border and then transported to his monastery in the town of Myaing Gyi Ngu in Karen State where he lived as an abbot. Many of his followers expressed grief when they visited his monastery to pay their last respects on Sunday.

A number of Karen Buddhist monks and supporters of the deceased abbot held a meeting on Monday in Myaing Gyi Ngu to discuss how long they will keep his dead body, deciding to have it cremated it on Nov 27.

“The meeting was held today as a working committee and we all decided to keep the body for 45 days,” Min Tin Win, Karen State’s minister for religious affairs who attended the meeting told The Irrawaddy on Monday.

He said that though the state government donated some money on Monday, the monk’s supporters will independently arrange the funeral.

“[The monk’s supporters] did not ask for help from the government. They will do it for themselves,” said Min Tin Win.

Towards the end of his life, U Thuzana suffered from a lung problem and had breathing difficulties for several years before his death, carrying an oxygen tank wherever he traveled. He had spent 10 months in hospital before he passed away.

U Thuzana was a patron of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), an ethnic armed group founded in 1994 when a Buddhist faction split from the Christian-dominated Karen National Union (KNU). Until his death, he wielded considerable influence over the DKBA as well as the Border Guard Force (BGF).

He was responsible for inflaming religious tensions in Karen State in 2016 and 2017 by ordering his followers to build Buddhist pagodas in the compounds of Muslim and Christian places of worship.

According to Col. Saw San Aung, a leader of the splinter group DKBA who is now based in Kokang, northern Shan State, many people believed that U Thuzana was involved in politics during his lifetime as well as working in his religious role.

Col. Saw San Aung described U Thuzana as a good person who helped thousands of ethnic Karen who fled from fighting, comparing him to a tree where 10,000 birds could take shelter.

U Thuzana always told Col. Saw San Aung that issues of ethnicity and politics were concerns for all Karen people. As he was a monk, he said, his job was to work for his religion.

According to Col. Saw San Aung, he did not influence the ethnic armed revolution but rather worked on local development, building roads, pagodas and monasteries. He also helped Karen internally displaced persons (IDPs) who fled from fighting. His established an IDP camp at his monastery, accommodating Karen IDPs there.

According to Col. Saw San Aung, U Thuzana denounced the clashes which broke out between the BGF and the DKBA in Mae Tha Waw Village near Myaing Gyi Ngu in 2016, saying he didn’t want to see any blood spilled.

He owned a large piece of land in the Myaing Gyi Ngu area and offered it to the IDPs to build houses there. Myaing Gyi Ngu started out with a small IDP village but later expanded to become a town.

U Thuzana was deeply respected in Myaing Gyi Ngu where, following his example, the consuming of meat is banned and all villagers have adopted a vegetarian diet. His photo can be seen hanging in many houses in the town and his painted portrait at some pagodas which he had built.

He is responsible for the construction of hundreds of small pagodas along the roads between Myaing Gyi Ngu and the nearby Thai-Myanmar border. He even built some pagodas on the banks of the Salween River at the border. In his mission to spread Buddhism to all people living in mountainous areas, he also built a monastery in Kayah State.

Before the split of the KNU, U Thuzana had a pagoda built on the Manerplaw Mountain on the site of the former KNU headquarters. However, Gen. Bo Mya, who was the head of KNU at that time, warned him against painting it white as it could provide a target for the enemy, the Tatmadaw (Myanmar Army). This turned out to be the first internal conflict in the KNU which fanned the flames for the split later.

It was also said that some Buddhist members of the KNU felt there was unequal treatment between Christian and Buddhist KNU troops. When he inspired the defection of troops from the KNU and the formation of the DKBA splinter group, rumors spread that he had connections with the Tatmadaw.

Gen. Bo Mya and a number of other KNU leaders had suspicions about the DKBA having Tatmadaw connections and they were proven right when the two groups joined forces in a 1995 attack on Manerplaw, the KNU headquarters. Manerplaw had previously been a meeting point for Myanmar’s ethnic rebels to gather and plan attacks against the Tatmadaw.