The Monk in Command
covering burma and southeast asia
Wednesday, July 17, 2024


The Monk in Command


Burmese migrants work on a construction project in Sangkhalaburi, western Thailand. (PHOTO: Lawi Weng)

A charismatic monk with a vision of a peaceful Karen State is credited with making the DKBA decision to reject the junta’s border guard force plan.

Chit Thu, the military commander of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), recently held a grand party at his modern 40-room residence in Myawaddy, from which he controls a lucrative cross-border trade. He has a close relationship with the Burmese army, and his troops serve the regime as a proxy army which fights the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA).

U Thuzana

Unknown to most Westerners is that a Buddhist monk, U Thuzana, 67, weilds equal or even greater power within the DKBA. He is credited with making the recent DKBA decision to reject the regime’s border guard force order.

According to some, U Thuzana is the most powerful person in the DKBA. It is difficult for officers and soldiers not to follow his decisions because of his role in the creation of the DKBA, one of the junta’s closest allies.

His close followers praise his spiritual charisma. He is both a spiritual and political force which can easily match—and sometimes counter—the power wielded by the wealthy DKBA officers, who have benefited lavishly through their association with the junta and cross-border trade.

To many Karen, military commander Chit Thu is one more version of the former generation of Karen warlords, while U Thuzana is the answer to the Karen quest for a moral leader who places peace, well-being and future prosperity above politics. His support is based on Karen traditional leadership, nationalism and modern development, as well as traditional Buddhist moral leadership.

Many Karen, including Christians, see him as a potential bridge to peace and reconciliation between the DKBA, which is primarily Buddhist and controls a large part of Karen State, and the Karen National Union (KNU), the KNLA’s political wing, which is made up primarily of Christians. The two groups separated in 1994 after a bitter dispute involving religion, discrimination and other issues.

Any rapprochement between the two Karen armies would benefit the region, particularly the internally displaced persons and refugees along the border, in addition to making it easier for humanitarian groups to work there.

U Thuzana is a Pwo Karen from Hlaingbwe in Karen State. As a young man, he served as a KNLA soldier, acting as a courier. At age 20, he became a monk and began a long career of renovating pagodas in the region. He said his goal was to revive Buddhism and to create a zone of peace and prosperity. Later, he became a wandering forest monk and on his journey he came to the Myaing Gyi Ngu hill on the eastern bank of the Salween River, not far from Kamamaung town, where he met a yathey, a hermit who practiced astrology and magic.

U Thuzana decided to stay on the hill near a pagoda ruin. He was supported by local villagers but suffered from illness and had symptoms of TB. He fasted and meditated for 49 days on the hill, where he overcame his illness and later built his first pagoda. During the following 20 years, he is said to have renovated more than 70 pagodas. He prophesized that peace would come to the Karen when 50 white pagodas had been constructed.

His ascetic life drew many followers, and he himself became a disciple of the late Thamanya Sayadaw, a monk who formed a vegetarian Buddhist community in 1982. U Thuzana founded Myaing Gyi Ngu Old City, which has evolved into a large temple complex. The site also served as the DKBA headquarters in 1994. Inside the compound, his followers adhere to his moral rules: the five Buddhist precepts strictly observed; no anger, no fighting, no politics; no discussion of religious differences; and no gossip.

In 1975, U Thuzana was a member of the KNU Religious Executive Committee. Serious differences between Buddhist and Christian factions emerged during the mid-1980s. In 1989, Gen Bo Mya, the KNU leader, gave him permission to build a pagoda on a mountain at Thu Mwe Hta above the junction of the Salween and Moi rivers looking toward Manerplaw, the KNU headquarters at that time.

Construction was halted, however, on supposedly military grounds. Meanwhile, a KNU officer was accused of mistreating Karen Buddhist followers of the monk and committing crimes against them, including murder and rape.

A bitter dispute over the halted pagoda construction led to charges of arrogance and discrimination and numerous physical attacks on Buddhist followers of U Thuzana.

1  |  2  next page »

more articles in this section