An ultra-nationalist Buddhist monk leads the charge against Myanmar’s armed insurgency in the Sagaing region of the military regime, establishing a network of pro-junta militias that use a combination of violent coercion and fear-mongering.
While you won’t find him on any list of sanctions targeting the junta and its cronies for their crackdown on the country’s opposition, Warthawa is well-known in Sagaing, where the military has faced some of the strongest opposition to his rule since its February 2021 coup.
The stern-looking 40-year-old monk with broad shoulders and wide eyes made a name for himself in Sagaing’s Kanbalu township, where he previously served as the abbot of a temple in the Muslim-majority village of Hmaw Taw – a tract. where only 10% of the 500 households adhere to Myanmar’s national religion, Buddhism.
He later became a former leader, or “sayadaw”, of the country’s now defunct Ma Ba Tha network of extremists, residents of the region told Radio Free Asia, raised fears of an attack on Buddhism to gain followers.
“These monks made people delusional through the use of religion, but they are evil monks,” said a resident of the neighboring town of Taze, who spoke on condition of anonymity, citing fear of reprisals.
Despite a ban on Ma Ba Tha under Myanmar’s former National League for Democracy government, sources in Sagaing say that since August 2021, Warthawa has used the support of the military government to push his nationalist agenda. He has also helped form “Pyu Saw Htee” militias that aid the junta in its offensive against the region’s paramilitary People’s Defense Force and armed ethnic groups.
“After the military coup, [Warthawa] supported the military and the USDP,” the Taze resident said, referring to the pro-military Union Solidarity and Development Party.
He said the monk and his followers have made Pyu Saw Htee “much stronger”, leading to a recent rash of revenge killings of civilians with suspected links to the PDF in response to attacks on the military.
A PDF member in Kanbalu, who also declined to be named, told RFA that Warthawa is “using religion as his weapon” to turn the largely uneducated population of rural Sagaing against the armed resistance.
“He is fooling people and telling them that our country will be part of [neighboring] India [if they do not fight],” he said.
“He first built the Pyu Saw Htee forces. Then, when they became strong, even the NLD supporters did not dare to oppose them,” he said. “Some of them fled their villages. Those who remain are recruited by force. One person must join their forces from each household, and then these groups serve as the defense of the village.”
Expansion of militia networks
Sources say Warthawa has seen significant recruitment success in Kanbalu and Taze, as well as in the town of Kyunhla – three areas where there is already strong support among villagers for the military and its political party, the USDP.
But reports suggest he is also working to expand the network throughout Sagaing, where at least 77 pro-junta militia groups currently operate, according to a confidential report from the Northwestern Military Command leaked to social media in March 2022.
That same month, a video went viral on social media purportedly showing members of Ma Ba Tha on a “tour” of several pro-junta villages in Sagaing in support of forming Pyu Saw Htee units. The video appeared to show the monks helping to train people and giving Buddhist sermons.
In one clip, Warthawa and two other Ma Ba Tha sayadaws Wira Raza and Pandita are seen holding guns in their hands and telling residents that the PDF fighters were killing people and setting fire to villages.
Sources told RFA at the time that the footage was filmed on February 27 at the Yadanar Kan Myint Htei monastery during a Pyu Saw Htee training camp closing ceremony in Taze township’s Kabe village. They confirmed that pro-junta monks had “carried arms” and “participated in some of the fighting” in the region.
‘They call us bald’
A more recent video, recorded at a monastery in western Kanbalus’ Kyun Lel village and seen by RFA, showed members of a Pyu Saw Htee group telling residents to take up arms as part of an effort to ” build peace” and defend the area from PDF fighters who “insult and destroy our country, our people and our religion.”
“They kill their own people just because they have different views. They call monks venerable when they need us, but when they don’t like us, they call us bald,’ says a monk who became a militia member. “The PDF is a group of inhuman people with an animal mindset.”
“That is why you, my comrades, take up arms to defend your village, your region and your country. Is that not so?”
Local media Myanmar now reported that in October, Warthawa led a group of monks and gunmen to Kanbalu’s Ngar Toet village, where they ordered residents from the tract’s 250 households into the local monastery before one of the gunmen fired his weapon into the air, warning them that they would be shot. if they tried to leave.
Warthawa oversaw the selection of 150 men to attend a two-week training to prepare them to join the Pyu Saw Htee, which was held at the same monastery. Almost everyone who was selected went to the training “by force,” the report said, citing a resident whose name was among those called.
The resident fled the village with his family and went into hiding, but Myanmar now said junta troops killed one person who tried to flee – a former campaign organizer for the ousted NLD – and recaptured another, whose condition is currently unknown.
Warthawa has also used the military to build his Pyu Saw Htee network by offering incentives to potential recruits. Myanmar Now said the junta provided Warthawa with nearly US$2,000 in cash earmarked for disaster relief, local development and monasteries to buy food for Pyu Saw Htee members in Kanbalu and Taze in October. Villagers familiar with the militias in the townships said members are given free uniforms and paid US$80 a month, while leaders receive a salary of US$100.
Other residents told RFA that there are currently about 400 members of the Pyu Saw Htee in Taze, all of whom have been equipped with weapons issued to them by the junta’s Northwestern Military Command based in Monywa, Sagaing’s largest town.
‘No Greater Sins’
While Warthawa initially established the Pyu Saw Htee groups in western Kanbalu with the promise that they would only be used for “village protection”, sources told RFA that he has since ordered them to join military columns throughout the township.
In the nearly two years since the coup, Pyu Saw Htee groups fighting alongside the military in Taze have arrested or killed at least 77 civilians, burned 83 villages and forced more than 16,000 people to flee their homes, residents said.
In November and December alone, Pyu Saw Htee groups under Warthawa’s command killed 30 civilians and burned more than 1,100 houses in 21 villages in the three townships, they said.
In an interview with Myanmar in June, Warthawa defended his attacks on villages he claims are aligned with the armed resistance, claiming he was acting in a spirit of “angry benevolence”.
When asked about his role in the conflict, a former Ma Ba Tha monk named Pauk Ko Taw told RFA that Warthawa’s actions are “just” and that he “does not support killing people.”
“He is just working like a monk to bring peace in Sagaing’s Kanbalu township, that is why he organized [the groups] to bring peace,” he said. “We Buddhist monks have to organize people to remain peaceful and united and preach harmony to our ethnic groups. Warthawa has not committed any major sins … in Buddhism.”
But a Sagaing-based monk characterized Warthawa’s actions as “far from acceptable” for a member of the clergy.
Junta leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing “abuses his power, tortures and kills the people and burns their villages with military force,” said the monk, who requested anonymity.
“Since Warthawa is training such killers in Pyu Saw Htee, what he is doing is not in accordance with the codes of Buddhist monks in any way.”
A monk in Mandalay agreed that Warthawa is abusing his role as a monk to advance his own agenda. “We Buddhist monks are forbidden even to use harsh words against others or to swear, let alone kill or take up arms,” the monk said.
“Monks are the object of honor and worship for the people, and we have to maintain morality as a model for the people. Taking up arms like he has is completely wrong, and such monks can no longer be considered followers of Buddhism.”
The monk told RFA that it is the state’s Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee, which oversees the nation’s Buddhist clergy, is responsible for disciplining such wrongdoing, but said that in this case they are “turning a blind eye.”
Multiple attempts by RFA to contact Warthawa for this report went unanswered, as did inquiries to the Yangon-based State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee.
Translated by Myo Min Aung. Edited by Joshua Lipes and Malcolm Foster.