More Than Meets the Eye: Myanmar Junta Leader’s Renovation of Pagoda

By The Irrawaddy 20 December 2021

Myanmar coup leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and his family’s renovation of a centuries-old pagoda has aroused suspicions, with many people questioning the reasons for it and condemning the presence of monks they see as close to the junta.

Regime-controlled media on Saturday aired footage of Min Aung Hlaing, his wife Daw Kyu Kyu Hla, their daughter Khin Thiri Thet Mon, their son Aung Pyae Sone and his wife Myo Yadana Htike attending a ceremony marking the renovation of the Kyaik Devi pagoda in Hlegu Township in the outskirts of Yangon Region. They invited Buddhist monks to consecrate the pagoda.

The clerics in question are Dhammasuta Chekinda and U Kovida. The latter, commonly known as Vasipake Sayadaw, is famous for his vows of silence.

Dhammasuta Chekinda is known for his summer school programs, in which he teaches teenagers Buddhism and other subjects like civics, attracting hundreds of youngsters annually. The monk has barely appeared in public since the coup and has been tight-lipped about the regime’s brutal crackdowns on peaceful protesters, some of whom were the same age as his summer school students.

Min Aung Hlaing’s son Aung Pyae Sone (second from right), his wife Myo Yadan Htike (third from right) and Min Aung Hlaing’s daughter Khin Thiri Thet Mon (fourth from right) offer a new pennant-shaped vane for the Kyaik Devi pagoda to Dhammasuta Chekinda for consecration on Saturday. / Myawady

Vasipake Sayadaw is more controversial. Min Aung Hlaing has been his follower since 2006, when the general was serving as the commander of the Myanmar military’s Triangle Region, which oversees eastern Shan State. Renowned as a skilled astrologer and occult practitioner, the monk is believed to be the general’s astrological adviser.

U Kovida has frequently been spotted at religious events with Min Aung Hlaing in recent years. In 2020, when Min Aung Hlaing placed the “Hti” umbrella atop an ancient temple in Bagan, the monk was there, supervising the ceremony. In the public’s eyes, the event was nothing more than Min Aung Hlaing’s seeking of divine blessings to fulfil his wish to become the country’s president.

Following the coup, the monk was accused of advising the senior general to tell security forces to shoot protesters in the head. Most of the anti-regime protesters killed in the early days of the junta crackdown had bullet wounds to the head. As a result, he was singled out for criticism at anti-regime protests, with some protesters attaching photos of him to htamein—women’s sarongs—and hanging them in public places to express their wrath. Seeing the pictures of the monk he venerates attached to htamein is an infuriating sight for Min Aung Hlaing. He ordered his troops to take the women’s garments down and publicly announced in his state-run papers that anyone committing the act would be charged with insulting Buddhism.

On Saturday, the monk was seen closely supervising Min Aung Hlaing as he placed a new diamond orb—the highest part of a pagoda—at an old pagoda built by a Mon King centuries ago. Given the presence of his astrological adviser, and the nature of the event, Myanmar people naturally conclude the aim of the ceremony, in which the general breathed new life into the ancient temple, was nothing more than to seek divine blessings to sustain Min Aung Hlaing’s rule in the country.

The coup leader has been struggling since February to control the country, which has been rocked by popular armed resistance against his rule. He has killed more than 1,300 people, the majority of them opponents of his regime. Hours before the ceremony, his soldiers were heavily defeated in a clash with Karen rebels and civilian resistance fighters near the Thai border in Karen State.

After the ceremony on Saturday, Min Aung Hlaing wrote in the pagoda guestbook that he felt satisfied to be able to renovate the pagoda and wished that Myanmar be blessed with food security. Ironically, the bloodstained coup leader ended his wish by saying, “Peace be upon Myanmar.”

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