Since the coup leader Min Aung Hlaing grabbed power, there have been multiple hints that he wishes to become a Burmese Buddhist King. Instances like finding white elephants, discovering giant rubies, organizing and attending religious ceremonies to provide offerings to Buddhist monks indicate his dream of Buddhist Kingship. However, he is not the first military leader to revitalize this sentiment. Former dictator General Than Shwe was said to be the first person to politicize the discovery of white elephants and rubies. Than Shwe’s regime propagated that white elephants and rubies were good omens, and appeared under the reign of good rulers. Over the course of the successive military power, several signs suggested the military leadership became obsessed with the Buddhist warrior kingship. The three giant statues of Buddhist warrior kings – King Anawrahta, King Bayinnaung, and King Alaungpaya – in both Naypyidaw and in front of the Defence Services Academy in Pyin Oo Lwin are the prime examples of the military generals’ obsession with the Burmese Buddhist kingship. As a fellow of the Myanmar military which is notorious for brainwashing its soldiers, it does not come as a surprise to see Min Aung Hlaing’s dream of becoming a Burmese Buddhist Warrior King.
As his latest vanity project, Min Aung Hlaing unveiled the seated Buddha statue on August 1, boasting it as the world’s tallest Buddha image in the junta-controlled media outlets. The 81-ft tall Buddha image, known as Maravijaya, was built with more than 700 marble slabs, and inscribed with texts from the Tripiataka, the standard collection of scriptures in the Theravada school of Buddhism. True to his fashion, the junta chief organized the religious extravaganza for the unveiling ceremony in Naypyidaw, and the attendance of civil servants was mandatory. A few days after the unveiling ceremony, aerial photos of the Buddha image and its surroundings were widely shared on social media and received criticism for the poorly constructed landscape. Netizens ridiculed that Min Aung Hlaing could not even get his vanity project done right.
The discourse around this newly unveiled Buddha image is that the coup leader attempted to win the support of the civilians in a Buddhist-dominant country, and that he attempted to wash away his sins of killing innocent civilians. No matter how much effort he put in or how much state’s budget he spent to build the world’s tallest Buddha statue or to become a Burmese Buddhist ruler, he and his military have been destroying all sorts of religious buildings all over the country since the coup.
On August 12, it was reported that two Baptist churches were destroyed due to the regime’s aerial attack in Chin State: one in Falam and the other in Thantlang townships. Similarly in Karenni (Kayah) State, Mary Mother of Mercy Catholic Church in Loikaw Town also suffered an airstrike with its roof, ceiling, and windows all perished. This is merely more than a week after the Burmese-Buddhist-King wannabe publicly opened the Buddha image. These two states, predominantly inhabited by Christians, have long suffered from the regime’s horrible attacks. One would not forget devastating photographs that captured the burning of Thantlang Town or the burning of Christian churches in Hpruso Town.
In the latest report published by the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) in June 2023, a total of 190 religious buildings or sacred sites were destroyed by the Myanmar military from February 2021 to April 2023. Since the regime’s attacks on civilians were widespread, 13 out of 14 states and regions in the country witnessed damage to religious sites except for the Ayeyarwaddy Region. These attacks included 87 Christian religious buildings and six Islamic religious sites.
With the Buddhist kingship in mind, the Myanmar military leadership used to see other religions as threats. There have been multiple pieces of evidence that point towards how the Myanmar military politicized religions. The ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya people is a prime example of the military’s demonization of Muslims, and the military propagated its attacks as a form of protecting Buddhism in the country. However, this time around, Min Aung Hlaing does not seem to care about the Buddhist population. In the same report by the ICJ, it recorded that 94 Buddhist religious sites were also destroyed since the coup.
Local news reports also reflected these figures published by the ICJ. In January 2023, RFA Burmese reported that a total of 163 religious sites were attacked and destroyed by the military, majorly by airstrikes, with the Sagaing Region suffering the largest number of damage. In July 2022, the same news outlet reported that a total of 132 religious buildings were destroyed. In March 2022, the Irrawaddy News reported that more than 100 religious sites were damaged due to the regime’s attacks. If these reports indicate anything, it is the fact that Min Aung Hlaing does not and will not restrain his troops from attacking the religious sites.
With these concrete facts and figures, it is hard to believe that Min Aung Hlaing truly has faith in Buddha or Buddha’s teachings. One of the five precepts that every Buddhist follows is to refrain from taking life. Since the coup, the military, under his command, has killed more than 4,000 people on record, arrested more than 24000 people, and tortured a substantial number of people during interrogation. Min Aung Hlaing may delude himself and think he could be the Burmese Buddhist ruler if his good deeds outweigh his sins, but even the world’s tallest Buddha statue cannot save him from the unthinkable deeds he has done.