Guns, not monks, at monastery on Myanmar’s Thai border

Nikkei Asian Review, 11 May 2022

In a different world, Wat Fah Wiang Inn would symbolize the power of faith to transcend the borders between two largely Buddhist nations. Trust and tolerance, not guns, would hallmark this monastery straddling the Myanmar and Thailand border in the hazy Shan Hills, which stretch from Yunnan in China through Myanmar and into Thailand.

Instead, the Myanmar military has built bunkers, dug deep trenches and layered pits with bamboo stakes on the Myanmar side of the border, surrounding a seven-tiered ordination hall whose Buddha statue faces a pagoda a few meters away in Thailand.

For some of the ethnic minority Shan people from Myanmar’s Shan State, and for other ethnic minorities in Myanmar’s frontier regions, armed resistance has been a safeguard against military dominance for decades.

But since Myanmar’s generals seized power, ousting the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi on Feb. 1, 2021, resistance has spread to the rest of the nation — including the Burman majority, also known as Bamar, whom the military claims to protect.

Speaking on Myanmar’s Armed Forces Day on March 27, military leader Min Aung Hlaing vowed to “annihilate” militia groups, many of whose members — Burman and others — are taking a crash course in combat.

Some of these young people participated in peaceful pro-democracy protests on last year’s Armed Forces Day, when Min Aung Hlaing dined beneath a display of his face created by dozens of carefully positioned drones while soldiers killed 163 protesters, according to Human Rights Watch, a U.S.-based campaign group.

Desperate for guns, some have now joined forces with battle-hardened ethnic armed groups. They remain determined to dismantle the military, which in March was declared by the U.S. government to have committed genocide and crimes against humanity against the country’s minority Rohingya population in 2016 and 2017. In the same month, the United Nations accused the military government of committing “gross human rights violations” since it took power last year.

For Phone Lungla, a once-resident monk visiting Wat Fah Wiang Inn for the first time in six years, the sight of soldiers in his old sleeping quarters is disturbing.

Now a construction worker living on the Thai side of the border, the 35-year-old recalls the Tatmadaw, as Myanmar’s military is known, seizing the territory on the Myanmar side of the border from Shan rebels in the early 2000s. “If we could, we would take back all our land from the Tatmadaw,” he said.

The Myanmar soldiers stationed at the monastery are amiable enough, said Aww Zeya, a cheery 23-year-old monk who dreams of living in Dubai, which he has seen on television.

Many of his fellow novice monks left their hometowns in Myanmar’s Shan State because of the army. A stream of young men has arrived in Thailand over the years, though they transit the border elsewhere because the crossing at Wat Fah Wiang Inn is closed and tightly guarded.

From across thatched fencing, Aww Zeya makes small talk with the soldiers on the Myanmar side of the border; they are from Myanmar’s Burman heartland, he said. Their barracks overlook the walls of the monastery’s outdoor showers, close enough to count the robes on the washing line. Sometimes they kick around a woven bamboo ball with Thai soldiers — a game known as chinlone in Myanmar and takraw in Thailand.

But the monastery’s abbot, Preecha Tabeng, 49, is less forgiving. “The land belonged to the monks, not to the soldiers, but the Burmese military took it,” he said. A year ago, he watched as novice monks carved out bomb shelters in a nearby hill amid tensions between the Myanmar military and a Shan armed group, the Restoration Council of Shan State.

The shelters were never used, but they serve as a reminder of the history of conflict that seeps through the countryside. Near the Myanmar soldiers is an abandoned Shan village, next to a military airstrip, and beyond that the territory of the Beijing-aligned United Wa State Army, the strongest ethnic insurgent force in Myanmar.

When the monastery was built in the 1960s, the position of the border was unclear, and the area was controlled by a Shan army run by a one-armed general called Mo Heng, who lies entombed in the complex. His forces merged with the militia of a drug lord called Khun Sa, who eventually moved to Yangon to live under Myanmar military protection.

A military faction called the Shan State Army — South, better known as the RCSS, fought the Myanmar military in the area from 1996 to 2002 in a conflict that drove thousands of people across the border into Thailand. The monks of Wat Fah Wiang Inn retreated into the nearest town, Piang Luang, in Thailand’s Chiang Mai Province, and the Myanmar and Thailand authorities agreed that the border ran straight through the monastery.

Locals say that land mines litter the Myanmar hills just beyond an abandoned pillbox, while another remnant of the exodus, Koung Jor refugee camp, sits at the end of a bumpy lane 10 minutes away in Thailand.

Camp leader Sai Leng, a tattooed and frosty-haired 70-year-old Shan, described fleeing the rattle of machine guns in June 2002. The refugees in his camp work long hours in garlic and chili plantations for about 250 baht a day ($7.25) during the harvest seasons, he said, but otherwise struggle to get by.

“The Burmese military killed Shan civilians, burned some houses, took all our belongings, the chickens and pigs, motorbikes and trucks, and launched their heavy guns at our villages,” he said. “In the ethnic areas it has been happening for a long time, but now Burmese civilians are [also] suffering a lot.”

At least 1,730 civilians have been killed by security forces in Myanmar since the military takeover, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, an independent research group. Other analysts have given higher numbers.

Resistance forces within Myanmar are not fully united, despite the military’s atrocities. Some ethnic armed groups prioritize the goal of regional autonomy over the struggle for democracy, and some are fighting each other. Two rival Shan armed groups, the RCSS and the Shan State Progressive Party, have been locked for years in an ugly conflict over territory and influence.

“The leaders of these groups are crazy,” said a Shan refugee who asked not to be identified.

Sai Leng said he thinks the uprisings against the leaders of Myanmar’s military takeover would succeed if the National Unity Government, a parallel government set up by pro-democracy groups, received sufficient international support.

But his immediate concern is to win Thai citizenship for refugees, many of whom have been stateless for decades, he said. Raised in breeze block shelters in camps, the children study at a local school, where their heritage is recognized in a mural of a Shan legend similar to the Western story of Romeo and Juliet.

“Our kids are our future,” said Sai Leng. “They know very little about Shan State because they were born in Thailand. We hope they can get Thai citizenship in the future.”

Thailand hosts more than 90,000 refugees from Myanmar who fled to the country after the 1988 military crackdown, according to the U.N. refugee agency. Inside Myanmar, more than 441,500 people have been internally displaced since last year’s military takeover, including 48,700 in Shan State as of Jan. 31. This brings to nearly 1 million people the total number of internally displaced people in Myanmar, according to U.N. figures.

In recent months, the military has deployed fighter jets, armored vehicles and heavy weaponry to stamp out resistance in areas from Myanmar’s southeast to the Burman-dominated central heartlands, but it has so far failed to crush the insurrection. Now the generals are arming ultranationalist monks, who have been pictured in local media wearing their robes while holding rifles.

“Monks should not take guns; that’s not our job,” said Preecha Tabeng, speaking over the chants of orphaned Shan monks. “If you want a gun, take off your robe.”

He hopes the monastery will one day become a single religious institution again. In the meantime, peace can be found down the road in Piang Luang, where Thais live largely in harmony alongside Myanmar ethnic groups such as the Shan, Pa-O and Lisu, as well as descendants of Chinese soldiers from the nationalist Kuomintang army defeated by China’s communists in 1949.

In Piang Luang, walled courtyards featuring Chinese characters stand next to Shan temples and shops selling brightly colored ethnic scarves. The peace in the town, and in the ocher-colored settlements that nest in neighboring valleys, has eluded Myanmar for decades. Many in Piang Luang fear it will continue to do so for years to come.

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