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Myanmar military's charm offensive targets religious groups

Commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing and other generals visit churches and temples following the coup

UCA News reporter

UCA News reporter

Published: February 10, 2021 05:00 PM GMT

Updated: February 11, 2021 10:32 AM GMT

Myanmar military's charm offensive targets religious groups

Protesters wearing traditional Shan dress take part in a demonstration against the Myanmar military coup on Inle lake in Shan state on Feb. 11. (Photo: AFP)

Just two days after the Feb. 1 coup led by military chief Min Aung Hlaing, Myanmar’s generals reached out to various religious groups.

Generals from Yangon division paid a visit to the archbishop’s house in Yangon where they met with Cardinal Charles Bo and Bishop John Saw Yaw Han and distributed Covid-19 relief items.

The generals also visited churches in Mandalay and Myitkyina and reached out to Buddhist monasteries to provide rice bags and medical items.

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Min Aung Hlaing also visited a Buddhist monastery in Naypyitaw, the remote capital built by the then military regime leader Than Shwe, to provide food items.

In the week following the coup, state-run media broadcast the generals’ visits to various monasteries.

Famous pagodas such as Shwedagon in Yangon and Mahamuni in Mandalay were reopened on Feb. 8 under Covid-19 rules after they were closed for several months due to the pandemic.

“Pagodas and religious buildings have been reopened nationwide for the convenience of the public,” Min Aung Hlaing said in his first speech to the nation on Feb. 8.

The charm offensive came after Myanmar’s military drew strong condemnation from the international community following the coup that overthrew Aung San Suu Kyi’s government.

The military justified the seizure of power on grounds that last year’s elections were marred by voting irregularities.

The senior general, who is chairman of the State Administration Council, announced that it had imposed a state of emergency for one year and pledged to hold multi-party elections after the issue of voting fraud was resolved.

Min Aung Hlaing also visited Buddhist monasteries, churches, Hindu temples, mosques and Muslim-run hospitals in Naypyitaw, Yangon and Mandalay in August and September 2019.

A rare visit by the commander-in-chief raised eyebrows among political analysts and religious leaders in the predominantly Buddhist country.

The armed forces were widely accused of committing crimes against humanity in a crackdown on Rohingya Muslims that led to over 700,000 people fleeing to Bangladesh in August 2017.

UN investigators have called for the prosecution of military leaders including Min Aung Hlaing at the International Criminal Court over alleged atrocities committed against the Rohingya and other ethnic minorities.

No religious discrimination

Pope Francis is among the world leaders who have condemned the coup and expressed solidarity with the people of Myanmar.

The pontiff made his first historic visit to Myanmar in November 2017 when he met Min Aung Hlaing in Yangon ahead of an official meeting with civilian leader Suu Kyi.

A Vatican spokesman said Francis and the military chief had jointly spoken “of the great responsibility of the authorities of the country in this moment of transition.”

Min Aung Hlaing wrote in a Facebook post that he had told the pope that “Myanmar has no religious discrimination at all as the country ensures religious freedom.”

The pope's stance on Myanmar might have an impact as the Vatican has full diplomatic relations with Myanmar, while the pope gave Cardinal Bo a red hat in 2015 when he became the first cardinal in the country’s history.

Cardinal Bo has called on military leaders to release all detained leaders and pursue dialogue in the conflict-torn nation after decades of civil wars.

He has warned against international sanctions on Myanmar, noting that “sanctions and condemnations brought few results: rather, they closed doors and shut dialogue.”

“Sanctions risk collapsing the economy, throwing millions into poverty. Engaging the actors in reconciliation is the only path,” Cardinal Bo said in a letter on Feb. 4.

On Feb. 10, US President Joe Biden ordered new sanctions against the military regime in Myanmar which will prevent the generals from accessing US$1 billion in assets in the United States.

Biden said the new sanctions will allow his administration to freeze assets that benefit Myanmar’s military leaders while maintaining support for health programs, civil society groups and other areas that benefit the people. The administration plans to identify special targets for the sanctions later this week.

Min Aung Hlaing and other top generals already face US sanctions for alleged rights abuses against the Rohingya and other minorities. The military regime has yet to respond to the US sanctions.

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