Monks and militias in Myanmar

Amara Thiha and Marte Nilsen

The political implications of ultra-nationalist Buddhist monks and ideologies in Myanmar received much attention in the years before the 2021 military takeover. As Myanmar has turned more violent since the coup, ultra-nationalist monks have been radicalised further. What role are these monks playing in the political landscape of Myanmar today? And what is their rationale for supporting the military?

The coup leader, Commander-in-Chief of the Tatmadaw (Armed Forces of Myanmar) Min Aung Hlaing, marked Myanmar’s 75th Independence Day on 4 January 2023 by honouring hundreds of individuals, including the notorious ultra-nationalist monk U Wirathu who received a medal for patriotism. But similar recognition was absent for U Wirathu’s fellow ultra-nationalist monk, U Warthawa.

U Warthawa has been instrumental in organising and legitimising pro-junta militias in the Pyu Saw Htee group, an ultra-nationalist organisation comprised of local supporters of the military’s USDP party and trained by military veterans. These militias are increasingly doing the Tatmadaw’s dirty work in fighting the resistance from the People’s Defence Force, particularly in the restive Sagaing Region.

In March 2021, the Pyu Saw Htee group headquarters announced the formation of the Pyu Saw Htee as people’s militias to protect the villages, following nationwide resistance against the coup. But by early 2022, the militias were armed with rifles to support military columns and trained directly by the Tatmadaw, organised under the patronage of monks like U Warthawa….