A Buddhist monk has undergone armed training to fight with the popular resistance against the military junta in Myanmar, giving up his vows against killing in response to the deaths of peaceful protesters.
Former monk Kaythara, who now goes by the name George Michael, left the monkhood and took up arms in response to the arrests and killings of fellow monks who joined protests against the military regime that overthrew the elected government in February.
Kaythara, 33, became a monk when he was 20 years old and had been involved in humanitarian work. He served as head monk of the Dhamma Darna monastery in Hlaingthaya township, an area dominated by garment factories on the outskirts of Yangon, where he oversaw an orphanage.
In the early days of the military coup, Kaythara said he had actively participated in peaceful protest marches.
“We’ve been organizing the protests in Hlaingthaya since Feb. 6,” he told RFA in an interview. “Since then, we marched on the streets to protest every day until Feb. 14 when the authorities begin to crack down on the protests.”
A violent suppression of protesters by security forces that day left more than 60 people dead. Many residents, including thousands of factory workers, fled the area, which authorities placed under martial law.
Kaythara was not among the protestors that day because he went into hiding after authorities issued an arrest warrant for him. During his time in hiding, his mother died, but he wasn’t able to attend her funeral.
Kaythara said he later learned that many fellow protestors had been killed during the crackdown, the event that prompted him to join the popular armed rebellion against the military junta.
“We had resisted the military council’s rule peacefully, without even bearing a single needle, but after I learned about the forces shooting down fellow protestors, I changed my mind,” he said. “I decided to join the armed training when I arrived in this ‘liberated area.’”
Liberated area is a general term used in Myanmar to refer to territory unpenetrated by the Myanmar junta’s rule, including rebel-controlled ethnic areas along the borders of Thailand, India, and China.
“We were required to refrain from killing when we were Buddhist monks, but now we are in training to kill,” he said.
Authorities in the liberated area where Kaythara went for military training argued against his participation because he was a veteran monk. But they eventually relented, and he began training with an ethnic armed group in a location he declined to disclose for fear of endangering other soldiers.
“I remained a monk for 13 years,” Kaythara said. “I am still using the pronouns designated for monks. I remind myself I am no longer a monk and that I am a soldier now, so I try to eat and live like other soldiers do.”
Now that he has completed his military training, Kaythara is a ranking officer, though he said he is reluctant to confront Myanmar soldiers in battle because of his previous religious vow not to kill.
“I wonder if I am really capable of killing someone in battle,” he said. “I used to preventing others from killing, let alone killing someone myself, but now I am required to eliminate them as a soldier.”
Kaythara said he would have remained a monk had the military coup not occurred.
“I had an ambition to establish a Buddhist university,” he said. “I wanted to build a three-story facility. I aimed to build something as big as a landmark for Buddhists. This was my dream, but now it’s been destroyed.”
Other monks contacted Kaythara after they saw online photos of him in his military uniform, he said, but added that he doesn’t want them to follow in his footsteps.
“Although the armed rebellion is essential for this revolution, there are many things we can do as Buddhist monks,” he said. “I want to appeal to other Buddhist monks not to give up the monkhood to join the armed forces. There are many other ways you can help by remaining as a monk inside the country.”
At least 18 monks have been arrested by security forces for participating in protests since the Feb. 1 coup, according to the Dhamma and Peace Foundation, an online group set up in 2019 by prominent domestic and international Buddhist monks.
More than 860 people have been killed by the junta, and 4,480 remain in detention since the coup, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a Thailand-based monitoring group and NGO.
Reported by July Myo for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.
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