Analysis

Myanmar Military Rulers' Excellent Works

By The Irrawaddy 23 May 2022

The history of military rule in Myanmar shows three consistent activities by its generals: oppression, corruption and religious building work.

The country is impoverished, devastated and war-torn after many decades of military rule but stolen money keeps being spent on pagodas. 

On May 14, Kasone full moon day, Naypyitaw, which means abode of kings, was lively with religious ceremonies organized by the generals while troops killed civilians and torched homes across Myanmar. 

Former president U Thein Sein carries a hti for the Maha Wizayamuni Pagoda on Kasone full moon day on May 14, 2022.

Coup leader Min Aung Hlaing and his regime attended a ceremony to mark the curving of the Tri Pitaka treatises on stone slabs in Dekkhinathiri Township. Meanwhile, former president Thein Sein and his Defense Services Academy classmate and former Union Election Commission chairman and retired lieutenant general Tin Aye consecrated a pagoda in Ottarathiri Township.

The generals see building pagodas as boosting their merit and their image as Buddhist defenders in the eyes of Myanmar’s Buddhist majority. It follows a tradition set by kings before the British occupation.

Ne Win, the first post-war military dictator, had the Mah Wizaya Pagoda in Yangon constructed. His successor Than Shwe had the Kyauktawgyi Buddha image built in Insein in the city and the Uppatasanti Pagoda constructed in Naypyitaw. 

Former lieutenant general and chairman of the Union Election Commission for the 2015 general election U Tin Aye with U Thein Sein at the consecration of the Maha Wizayamuni Pagoda.

Former spy chief Khin Nyunt put a hti or umbrella on top of the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon and had a hti placed on the Dhammayazika Pagoda in Bagan and Swe Taw Myat (Buddha tooth relic) Pagoda in Yangon. He had many other pagodas renovated.

Ne Win ordered numerous brutal crackdowns on demonstrations during his rule from 1962-88. 

He ordered the hanging of Captain Ohn Kyaw Myint, who plotted to assassinate Ne Win, and student protest leader Salai Tin Maung Oo.

Myanmar fell into the list of least-developed countries under his rule while generals amassed enormous rich. 

Ne Win’s children and grandchildren established the wealthiest families in the country and his grandsons are working with Min Aung Hlaing to produce electric cars in the country.

In 1980, Ne Win had the Maha Wizaya Pagoda built near the southern gate of the Shwedagon Pagoda. Commonly referred to as Ne Win’s pagoda, Maha Wizaya sees few worshippers despite its proximity to Shwedagon.

Former junta leader Than Shwe and his wife Kyaing Kyaing at a religious ceremony in March 2009. / The Irrawaddy

Among the generals who led the regime after the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, Senior General Then Shwe and Khin Nyunt dominated in crushing protesters. 

They were blamed for the deaths of around 3,000 civilians, including students.

Under the State Law and Order Restoration Council and its successor State Peace and Development Council, thousands were detained. 

Some were tortured to death and many were given long sentences in remote prisons where they died of abuse or neglect.

As Than Shwe and other generals stole the country’s wealth, the country descended into grinding poverty. 

Dictator Than Shwe (center) and then Major General Khin Nyunt at a ceremony to place a hti on top of the Shwedagon Pagoda.

But their pagodas honored them as promoters of Buddhism. With detailed arrangements made by Khin Nyunt, Than Shwe had a new hti hoisted on Shwedagon in 1999. 

He also had the Kyauktawgyi Pagoda built in 2002. Khin Nyunt also had a hti placed on the Dhammayazika Pagoda in Bagan and it became known as Khin Nyunt’s pagoda among Bagan’s residents.

During the so-called Saffron Revolution in 2007, when thousands of monks protested against military rule, Than Shwe ordered a violent crackdown on street protests, raids on monasteries and the detention of monks. 

Khin Nyunt at the ceremony to put a hti on the Shwedagon Pagoda.

Acting president Myint Swe, who was the security affairs chief, and immigration minister Khin Yi, the police chief, were involved in the crackdown and raids.

Min Aung Hlaing was Than Shwe’s apprentice. Since his February 2021 coup, his regime has killed an estimated 1,900 people. 

Min Aung Hlaing and his relatives now feature on Myanmar’s rich list after he seized state-owned properties and dominates numerous businesses.

He is also having the world’s tallest sitting Buddha image built in the new Buddha Park in Naypyitaw. 

Since last year, he has consecrated three pagodas in Yangon, Magwe Region and Shan State as he seeks to win Buddhist merit. 

Min Aung Hlaing and his astrological adviser U Kovida place a diamond orb on the Maha Myat Muni Buddha image in Kengtung on Feb. 15.

The civilian National Unity Government has been selling shares in Min Aung Hlaing’s mansion on Yangon’s Inya Street to raise money for its revolution against the regime. It is selling off the mansion for US$10 million, a third of its estimated market value if it takes power.

Although Thein Sein was not as openly corrupt as Min Aung Hlaing, his military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party government was riddled with corruption. 

Most of his cabinet members were notorious for corruption with many ministers embezzling public funds until power was handed to the National League for Democracy in 2016.

Thein Sein played different roles under Than Shwe as chairman of the commission to organize the national convention and prime minister of the State Peace and Development Council. He and Than Shwe are neighbors in Naypyitaw. On March 27 when respect was paid to retired military leaders on Armed Forces Day, Thein Sein advised the generals, including Min Aung Hlaing, who paid respect to him.

Than Shwe and members of his family hoist the pagoda’s hti or sacred umbrella. / The Mirror

While Min Aung Hlaing has followed his predecessors by killing civilians, stealing public funds and building pagodas, his regime has failed to control the country as his coup sparked an unprecedented revolt.

The world will see if Min Aung Hlaing is still in power when the world’s tallest sitting Buddha is completed.

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