Nationalist monks have been forming militias in the resistance stronghold of Sagaing Region to counter people’s defense forces (PDFs) fighting Myanmar’s regime, according to residents.
Led by influential monk U Wasawa from the ultranationalist Association for Protection of Race and Religion (APRR), better known by its Burmese acronym Ma Ba Tha, monks have been rallying villagers to support military rule.
The monk has formed militias in Kyunhla, Zigon, Kantbalu and Taze townships, according to residents who refer to the groups as Pyu Saw Htee militias.
A Kyunhla resident said: “Ma Ba Tha monks have been forming Pyu Saw Htee groups. They call them people’s militias. They are designed to crush the National League for Democracy [NLD] and other anti-regime forces in the name of race and religion. It is easy to sway rural communities under the pretext of religion. Villagers are being exploited.”
Ma Ba Tha was created in 2012 out of the 969 movement, a nationalist campaign that called for the boycott of Muslim-owned businesses. In 2013, 969 members rebranded the group as the APRR, which came to be known as Ma Ba Tha. The group’s rhetoric is to protect race and religion, which means protecting Bamar communities and Buddhism.
U Wasawa, who is a well-known Buddhist leader in Kanbalu, Kyunhla and Taze has been forming Pyu Saw Htee groups since November last year and he has assembled over 4,000 villagers, including more than 100 women, according to residents.
The monk became an abbot at Hmaw Taw in Kanbalu Township around seven years ago and has since engaged with the Ma Ba Tha. He has organized pro-military rallies at his monastery and participated in panel discussions organized by the pro-junta Myanmar National Post.
Armed police and Pyu Saw Htee fighters provide security for the monk’s monastery, according to sources.
The monk made no comment to The Irrawaddy.
A Kantbalu resident said: “They accompany junta operations and they harm the people, together with soldiers.”
Pyu Saw Htee militias have a significant presence in eight Kantbalu villages, he said.
Light Infantry Battalion 367 troops led by Captain Kyaw Thurein are based in Kyun Lel village, which has more than 350 households, in Taze Township. It trains and commands Pyu Saw Htee members from other villages. Junta soldiers also run an interrogation camp in the village where they conduct deadly interrogations of civilians, residents said.
Battalion 367 is based in Phaung Pyin under the 10th Military Operations Command.
A Kyunhla resistance fighter said U Wasawa often gave anti-NLD sermons and hate-filled speeches against non-Buddhists long before the 2021 coup.
Junta spokesman Major General Zaw Min Tun told a press conference: “We have formed people’s militias in villages where PDFs are aggravating villagers for not supporting them. But we don’t supply arms to monks and there is no reason to arm them.”
Other well-known Ma Ba Tha monks like U Viraraja and U Pandita are also forming Pyu Saw Htee groups in Sagaing.
A Buddhist monk, who is a member of an anti-regime strike committee in Mandalay, said: “Monks are barred from carrying weapons and even living in conflict zones by Buddha’s teachings and Vinaya [a monk’s code of conduct]. It is a sin. Those who support torture, robbing and killing do not deserve respect. If monks support those things, it is a cause for concern for religion. I condemn those acts that are also banned by Vinaya.”
In March, U Wirathu and Ma Ba Tha monks traveled between villages that support the junta and military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party and rallied them to fight the PDFs.
The involvement of Ma Ba Tha monks in Pyu Saw Htee is viewed by some observers as the regime’s attempt to exploit religion.
“They label those who they dislike as PDF fighters or their supporters and detain and often kill them. They also loot and vandalize the houses of NLD supporters. They are armed robbers,” said a resistance fighter.
An allegedly leaked secret report from the Northwestern Command that recently went viral on social media said 77 people’s militias have been formed in Sagaing Region and over 2,000 weapons have been supplied to them. More groups are being formed in remote villages.
Pyu Saw Htee fighters are reportedly armed by the regime with BA63 assault rifles, rocket-propelled launchers and sniper rifles.
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