Myanmar’s Senior Monks Silent on Looming Executions of Junta Opponents

By The Irrawaddy 17 June 2022

The regime’s decision to execute prominent anti-regime activists Ko Jimmy and Ko Phyo Zeya Thaw has drawn widespread condemnation both locally and internationally. However, prominent Buddhist monks including Sitagu Sayadaw and Dhammasuta Chekinda as well as the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee, a state-backed organization that is the country’s highest Buddhist authority, remain tight-lipped.

As junta leader Min Aung Hlaing is their beloved disciple, and they often meet the general at religious events, they have many opportunities to discuss the execution order with him.

There are examples from Myanmar’s monarchical past of senior Buddhist monks successfully asking for pardons for those on death row. And under British colonial rule, revolutionary leader Bo Yar Nyunt had his death sentence commuted to life imprisonment after senior Buddhist monks made a plea to authorities.

Even when Galone U Saw, who orchestrated the assassinations of Myanmar’s independence hero General Aung San and his colleagues, was given the death penalty, senior Buddhist monks tried to spare his life, at least for a while. They held a meeting at which they suggested postponing the execution for two to three months so that U Saw could do good deeds before his death, which according to Buddhist belief would help him avoid suffering in his next existence.

Junta chief Min Aung Hlaing, Bhamo Sayadaw and Sitagu Sayadaw at an event to mark the carving of Tri Pitaka treatises on stone slabs at Mara Vijaya Buddha Park in Dekkhinathiri Township, Naypyitaw in May 2022. / Myawady

Today, however, influential Buddhist monks are apparently of the same mind as the junta generals. Perhaps Sitagu Sayadaw and Dhammasuta Chekinda haven’t had time to notice the execution order, as they are so busy overseeing the construction of a Buddha statue—touted as the world’s biggest sitting Buddha image—which Min Aung Hlaing is having built in Naypyitaw.

Sitagu Sayadaw was tightlipped when the military gunned down protesters in the aftermath of the coup in February last year. Only after he had attracted widespread criticism did he call for an end to the killing of unarmed civilians in early March. Even that was not a personal statement. He simply signed a demand made by monks from the Shwe Kyin sect, as the vice chairman of the sect. He has not spoken a critical word since, but a year later he hailed Min Aung Hlaing as a “king” or head of state of great generosity and wisdom. By which time, thousands of people had been killed in crackdowns, air raids and artillery strikes, and hundreds of thousands of people had been displaced from their homes by junta arson attacks.

In September last year, the monk flew with the junta’s No. 2 man Soe Win to Russia, and lived at a monastery built with donations from Min Aung Hlaing and families of military personnel in Moscow for months.

Min Aung Hlaing’s son Aung Pyae Sone (second from right), his wife Myo Yadana 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 in December. / Myawady

Dhammasuta Chekinda has received religious titles from Min Aung Hlaing since the coup. He was also present when Min Aung Hlaing consecrated pagodas. He has been promoted from a department head to acting rector at the International Theravada Buddhist Missionary University in Yangon.

It appears that the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee led by Bhamo Sayadaw is also so preoccupied with accepting donations from Min Aung Hlaing, and eating meals offered by former military dictator Than Shwe and ex-generals, that it has forgotten to ask them to spare the lives of those who were unfairly sentenced to death.

If the regime goes ahead with its execution order against 88 Generation student leader Ko Jimmy and National League for Democracy lawmaker Ko Phyo Zeya Thaw, it will be the first judicial execution in Myanmar in over 30 years.