Monks march during the 9th anniversary of the Saffron Revolution ceremony at Shwedagon pagoda in Yangon on 18 September 2016. (Photo: Ye Aung Thu / AFP)

An Unexpected Stillness in the Heart of Wartime Myanmar

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The monks in Pakokku, a major centre of Buddhist learning and training, have not reprised the role played by their predecessors in the historic Saffron Revolution in 2007. Several factors can explain this, the foremost of which revolves around the clergy’s conception of order and hierarchy.

Top officers in Myanmar’s military would likely remember the centrality of the town of Pakokku in the radical monk protests of 2007, otherwise known as ‘the Saffron Revolution.’ Then, monks in the Dry Zone town had rallied the country to march against the junta until a crackdown ensued.

On the surface, Pakokku appears to have the pre-requisites for some form of organised resistance to the junta which took power on 1 February 2021. It is likely that a substantial proportion of the monks studying and meditating and teaching in Pakokku today are generational comrades with Generation Z youths fighting the State Administration Council (SAC) junta on the streets of towns and villages across Myanmar. While some monks are quietly giving shelter to dissidents, and many others may feel solidarity with the resistance, Pakkoku’s monks have thus far been undetectable among the junta’s opponents.

Notwithstanding some small-scale individual or group protests, this Irrawaddy River port town has remained relatively quiet and exempt from widespread killing. Where are the township’s monks, and monks more generally, in Myanmar’s anti-junta struggle? Why are they not at the centre of the Spring Revolution?

Pakokku is a major centre of Buddhist erudition and training, as well as lay devotion. In 2019, with roughly 400,000 inhabitants, it trailed only Mandalay in the number of monks per head of population. It has not been untouched by violence since the coup. Like almost every township in the Mandalay, Magway and Sagaing Regions, Pakokku has seen resistance and military cruelty. Its students took to the streets in small numbers as early as any protestors in the country, within five days of the coup. Student unions, farmers’ associations, labour unions, a general strike committee, and civil society organisations are as viscerally enraged about the coup as their fellow citizens in Dry Zone areas with more regular conflict. And three local resistance groups robbed an insurance company on 28 March 2022, the day after motorcyclists lobbed bombs at soldiers at an Armed Forces Day event. 

According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), thirteen people have died in Pakokku since February 2021. While they died in grisly, horrific ways, the absence of clusters of killings suggests a lack of engagements or skirmishes of any scale between pro- and anti-junta forces. Likewise, only 32 people have been detained across Pakokku’s wards and village tracts, though AAPP(B) has only been able to confirm charges of incitement (six were charged for criminal incitement; no charges have been filed against the rest). Similarly, 12 of the 15 arrest warrants issued in Pakokku over the last year came in the third week of April 2021, all against medical staff who had joined the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM). Other arrests have resulted in death from torture, but more are aimed at extortion in exchange for release.

Despite these indicators, Pakokku is in no way tangential to the nationwide wars over the 1 February 2021 coup. It is the headquarters for the 101st Light Infantry Division (LID) and four light infantry brigades. The former unit is the only one of the Myanmar military’s ten LIDs headquartered in the country’s ‘heartland’ of seven Buddhist-Bamar-majority regions. Convoys of 101st LID reinforcements heading west and north to Kalay Township and Chin State have been targeted by smaller resistance forces in the township and others along the road. Local defence forces have mounted roughly once-a-month attacks on military transport routes, as part of a strategy to cut supply lines to military battlefield troops. At least two and possibly as many as eight local defence forces operate in Pakokku.

Myanmar’s former State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) junta had established the new headquarters of the 101st LID in Pakokku in 1991. It is likely that the SLORC wanted the unit to be a nodal point to be able to deploy crack troops along the roads, railroads, and Irrawaddy and Chindwin Rivers, in the event that the heartland destabilised. Some of Myanmar’s most powerful officers cycled through as 101st LID commanders, including current Minister of Defence General Mya Tun Oo and current Minister of Home Affairs Lt. General Soe Htut, a known disciple of junta supremo General Min Aung Hlaing.

Pakokku is clearly central to the participation of one major Myanmar institution, the military, in the country’s ongoing civil strife. But what of the other major institution, the Sangha? Where are the monks, including Pakokku’s monks, as the country’s social order appears to come unglued? Why, despite comparable economic hardship, do we not see a replay of 2007? Then, Pakokku monks had taken local officials and subsequently became the target of army rifles. Despite minimal Facebook penetration at the time, the actions of the monks had galvanised the country to march against that junta.

Pakokku is in no way tangential to the nationwide wars over the 1 February 2021 coup. It is the headquarters for the 101st Light Infantry Division (LID) and of four light infantry brigades. The former unit is the only one of the Myanmar military’s ten LIDs headquartered in the country’s ‘heartland’ of seven Buddhist-Bamar-majority regions.

The answers appear to be manifold. Many monks, young but mostly old, returned home or died during the third wave of Covid-19 in mid-2021. Most of Pakokku’s abbots also took care not to get caught up in the partisan battles of the past decade between the National League for Democracy, the military-associated Union Solidarity Development Party and the more radical Buddhist nationalist movement. Perhaps the daily ritualistic performances of senior military officers donating to monks has intimidated or even impressed the Sangha. And possibly, as in the case of some Yangon townships, riot police have issued direct threats to senior monks to enforce discipline in monasteries, schools and temples. Beyond these factors, abbots may have witnessed such suffering in civil strife in their lifetimes and in the current political and economic crisis that they see their roles as being providers of sanctuary rather than parties to the conflict.

But what may be a more likely explanation is that besides the army, the only other reliable Myanmar bastion of centuries of life lived under strict and predictable hierarchies is that of the conservative Theravadda Buddhist Sangha. The 2007 monks marched in an orderly fashion and prayed to end the country’s hardship. Like their predecessors, today’s monks want to preserve a modicum of order; as such, they may see the resistance as upending the ‘Five Gratitudes’ taught in secular and monastic schools for decades: respect for Buddha-Dhamma-Sangha, parents and teachers. If any authority can be challenged, so could the monks, in an environment in which Buddhism is believed widely to be on the decline. 

Still, the limited anti-regime protests in Pakokku should not be understood as pacification. Almost no students returned to school or Pakokku University when they were reopened. And port traffic is minimal. As the saying goes, still waters run deep.

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