Myanmar Military Hands Top Honor to Nationalist Monks

By The Irrawaddy 20 February 2023

The Myanmar military’s Yangon Command on Saturday presented ‘Thiri Pyanchi’ titles conferred by junta boss Min Aung Hlaing to two Buddhist monks, including firebrand nationalist monk U Wirathu.

The ceremony was held in Thiri Mingalar Maha Sasana Beikman, a religious hall mainly funded by Min Aung Hlaing in Yangon’s Insein Township.

In attendance was Yangon Command chief Major-General Nyunt Win Swe, who oversaw the hangings of four democracy activists including Ko Jimmy and Ko Phyo Zeya Thaw in July last year. Also at the ceremony were junta-appointed Yangon Region ministers, vice chairman of the military’s proxy Union Solidarity and Development Party former Lieutenant-General U Myo Zaw Thein; Yangon Region USDP chairman U Khin Maung Soe, who served as electricity minister in U Thein Sein’s administration; members of the ultranationalist Association for Protection of Race and Religion, better known by its Burmese acronym Ma Ba Tha; and members of the pro-military Young Men’s Buddhist Association (YMBA).

Maj-Gen Nyunt Win Swe made offerings to the two monks while Yangon Region Social Welfare Minister U Aung Win Thein presented the Thiri Pyanchi to U Wirathu and U Myo Zaw Thein presented the title to Bhaddantaka Kavidaja, also known as Zwekabin Sayadaw.

USDP vice president U Myo Zaw Thein and USDP Yangon president U Khin Maung Soe make a cash donation to Insein Ywama Sayadaw U Tilawka Bhivamsa.

Wirathu is notorious for his racial and religious hate speeches. The monk whom Time magazine once dubbed the “Buddhist Bin Laden” spent a year on the run from a sedition charge in 2019 over remarks he made about now-jailed State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. He surrendered to authorities in November 2020 and was released from prison in October 2021.

At the ceremony, the USDP donated three million kyats, and Ma Ba Tha and other nationalist groups donated over 70 million kyats to the two Thiri Pyanchi recipients.

The YMBA, of which Min Aung Hlaing is a lifetime honorary patron, also conferred the ‘Agga Maha Mingala Dhamma Jotika’ title on the two monks. The association has granted the same title to Min Aung Hlaing.

The following day saw celebrations for the 84th birthday of former Ma Ba Tha leader Insein Ywama Sayadaw held at his monastery in Insein. In attendence were Maj-Gen Nyunt Win Swe, U Myo Zaw Thein, U Khin Maung Soe, and Insein USDP chairman U Min Thu Tun.

Maj-Gen Nyunt Win Swe and U Myo Zaw Thein donated three million kyats each to Insein Ywama Sayadaw U Tilawka Bhivamsa, whom the regime last year handed the title of  Abhidhajamahāraṭṭhaguru, the highest honor conferred to monks for contributing to the study of Buddhism.

Former Brigadier-General U Khin Yi, chairman of the military’s proxy USDP also met with U Tilawka Bhivamsa, in December. Khin Yi said he had sought advice from the former Ma Ba Tha chairman.

Ma Ba Tha was born in 2012 out of the 969 movement, a nationalist campaign that called for a boycott of Muslim-owned businesses. In 2013, members of 969 rebranded as the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, known as Ma Ba Tha.

Hate speech by the group sparked confrontations with the now-ousted National League for Democracy government. Ma Ba Tha was eventually declared unlawful in May 2017 and has since rebranded as the Buddha Dhamma Prahita Foundation.

Back in 2019, Myanmar military spokesman Major-General Zaw Min Tun said Ma Ba Tha was necessary and must be supported in the name of Buddhism. Ma Ba Tha acted as a platform for the military to attack Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD government. Apart from U Wirathu’s public criticism of the NLD government, the association also issued publications featuring reports critical of the NLD.

The association has been less active over the past few years but has never died out, and with the backing by the Myanmar military and the USDP, the group is likely to rise again. And Min Aung Hlaing and his fellow generals, who have always accused the NLD of failing to protect Buddhism, may already be hatching plots to abuse religion for their interests.