In a monastery in central Myanmar, a Buddhist monk, Wathawa, rallies his militia with a cry: “What’s our spirit like?”
“The spirit of iron!” shout a group of rifle-bearing men, loyalists of the military junta that seized power last year, now fighting to crush fledgling pro-democracy groups.
The scene, from a video posted online by army-linked media, would have seemed unimaginable to previous generations in the overwhelmingly Buddhist nation. Now, it underscores the close alliance the military has forged with the Buddhist hierarchy.
Myanmar’s Buddhist clergy previously sought to topple successive military dictatorships that kept citizens impoverished and isolated. Monks were part of the 1988 uprising that brought Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to prominence. Thousands thronged the streets during 2007 anti-government protests known as the Saffron Revolution.
Many are now supporters of the new junta.
The change reflects a years-long effort by the military to build stronger ties with Buddhist leaders by lavishing them with gifts and cultivating a shared ultranationalist and often Islamophobic vision, according to 11 people familiar with the monastic system, including three current or former monks and four researchers. Three spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of military reprisals.
In recent years, ultranationalist monks incited violence against Muslims in Myanmar, including riots that killed 25 people in 2013 and army-led attacks against the Rohingya minority.
As the new junta suppresses opponents, religious leaders have been largely absent from the widespread resistance to last year’s army coup, which ended the decade-long democratic experiment that brought Suu Kyi to power.
Some monks, like Wathawa, who claims to have thousands of armed followers, are serving to rally militia fighters against armed pro-democracy groups that emerged after the military crushed peaceful protests with deadly force.
Troops have burned more than 100 villages and killed civilians in attacks the United Nations has called probable war crimes and crimes against humanity.
In public comments and state media broadcasts as recently as November, the military has acknowledged forming militia in some villages “based on their demands”, but has denied arming monks. It denies targeting civilians, saying its operations are against “terrorists”. A military spokesman did not respond to Reuters’ requests for comment about its relationship with the militia.