He Was a Buddhist Monk. Now He’s an Armed Freedom Fighter.

July 7th, 2021  •  Author: Monk Kaythara (Aka) George Michael (Hlaingthaya township)  •  8 minute read
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HE PROTESTED PEACEFULLY AS A MONK (L) EARLIER THIS YEAR BUT WAS DRIVEN TO ARMED RESISTANCE BECAUSE OF THE JUNTA’S BRUTALITY. PHOTO COURTESY OF U KAYTHARA

By Maung Moe

The Myanmar junta’s cruelty has upended lives and pushed many into violent resistance.

The former monk takes every meal as if it is his last. If necessary, he and his fighters are willing to sacrifice their lives. Each has a grenade attached to a chest pocket on their uniforms, not for throwing at the enemy, but for blowing themselves up if they are close to being caught by Myanmar soldiers.

“We will never surrender. Even if they can capture us, they will only get our dead bodies, not alive. We will fight until our last breath,” the 33-year-old told VICE World News in a recent phone interview from an undisclosed location in the jungles of eastern Myanmar, where much of the organized resistance to the Feb. 1 coup has gathered force.

“We will never surrender. Even if they can capture us, they will only get our dead bodies, not alive. We will fight until our last breath.”

THE FORMER MONK IN UNIFORM IN EASTERN MYANMAR IN THIS UNDATED IMAGE. PHOTO COURTESY OF U KAYTHARA

The different stages of his life are captured in his changing names, a somewhat common practice in Myanmar. Formerly known as Kyaw Swar Htay, he adopted the name U Kaythara as a monk. When he left the monkhood, he had to choose a new name. Since taking up arms, he calls himself George Michael, a combination of names whose similarity with the late pop star is coincidental.

In the past, the winding mountain paths and thick forests of Karen State were the domain of ethnic armed groups ensnared in endless conflict with the military. But since the coup ripped Myanmar’s young democracy into pieces, the border area near Thailand has drawn poets, musicians, and even a former beauty queen into the struggle against the junta.

In response to the escalating violence, peaceful protests have given way to new methods of resistance, as members of a People’s Defense Force battle it out in remote and urban areas. Late last month, street fights erupted across Myanmar’s second biggest city of Mandalay. Explosions, shootings, and deadly clashes with soldiers regularly make headlines.

Though Buddhist monks have joined protests against the coup in Myanmar, some senior figures in the Buddhist-majority country’s clergy have sided with the junta. But there is a long history of monks emerging from the stillness of the monastery into the chaos of uprisings against oppression.

“Some joined the armed resistance to early British colonial rule; Saya San, who led a peasant rebellion against the British, was a disrobed monk,” Richard Horsey, a Myanmar analyst for the International Crisis Group, told VICE World News. More recently, in the 1990s, Buddhist monk U Thuzana led the insurgent Democratic Karen Buddhist Army.

“So, it’s not that surprising to see a monk taking up arms against the regime. The vast majority of people in Myanmar from all walks of life are opposed to the coup and angry at the regime’s violence against the population,” Horsey added. “There is a great determination to do whatever it takes to prevent the military keeping power, including taking up arms.”

“The vast majority of people in Myanmar from all walks of life are opposed to the coup and angry at the regime’s violence against the population.”

U Gambira, one of the leading figures in the 2007 Saffron Revolution, a series of demonstrations led by monks against a previous military regime that ultimately crushed the uprising, has mixed feelings about Michael’s decision. Gambira spent four years in jail for his role in the 2007 protests. He was tortured inside and still struggles with the trauma. When released in a 2012 amnesty, he said monasteries wouldn’t accept him because he was a political prisoner. He had to leave the monkhood and seek political asylum in Australia.

He said he was “sad” to see Michael leave the monastery. But on the other hand, he was proud of him and said he respected the decision.

“It is not his personal desire. He left the monkhood for the people and the nation,” he told VICE World News.

THE FORMER MONK, NOW KNOWN AS GEORGE MICHAEL, IN HIS NEW UNIFORM IN EASTERN MYANMAR IN THIS UNDATED IMAGE. PHOTO COURTESY OF U KAYTHARA

In a previous interview with Radio Free Asia’s Myanmar service, Michael reflected on the wide gulf between his past and current outlook on life.

“We were required to refrain from killing when we were Buddhist monks, but now we are in training to kill,” he was quoted as saying. “I wonder if I am really capable of killing someone in battle.

“I used to prevent others from killing, let alone killing someone myself,” he added. “But now I am required to eliminate them as a soldier.”

Michael now spends most of his time in the jungle, with what he says is a small team involved in fighting on the front lines against Myanmar soldiers. Now, his policy is “no retreat.”

“Our slogan is ‘Beat them with the stock, once your [gun] magazines are empty.’”

“Our slogan is ‘Beat them with the stock, once your [gun] magazines are empty.’”

Born and raised in Yangon, he is the youngest son in a family of four. His family moved to outerlying Hlaing Tharyar township when he was a kid. Even though his father passed away when Michael was 10 years old, he had a happy childhood, and the family business thrived.

“I had the best life. I was even spoiled by my family,” he said.

When he was 20, his mother asked him to enter the monkhood. When she became diagnosed with cancer, seeing her son wearing the saffron robes of the Buddhist monk gave her comfort.

Hlaing Tharyar, now home to many working class families and garment factories, is one of the poorest parts of Yangon. Michael’s monastery soon became known for philanthropic works. He said he provided shelter to homeless people, donated food, and provided emergency aid to the community with his own fire services department and ambulances.

But like many other people in the country with no background in warfare, Michael was traumatized by what he saw unfolding right in front of him in the early days after the Feb. 1 takeover, when soldiers arrested leader Aung San Suu Kyi, cut the internet, and briefly allowed peaceful protests before cracking down with deadly force.

Michael left his monastery after witnessing the early stages of brutal suppression, moving to safe houses and taking part in protests. In one picture, he can be seen holding up a heart-shaped necklace made of flowers. But after a massacre in Hlaing Tharyar in March, when dozens of people were reported killed, he decided to try a different path.

“I couldn’t do anything for them. That’s why I joined the resistance movement because I was so angry,” he said.

In March, just as he was preparing to flee to the east, he received a call informing him that his long-suffering mother had died. But he had to leave quickly as junta forces were aware of his activities. “I didn’t have enough time to say goodbye to my mother,” he recalled. “I don’t even know the color of her tombstone.”

He slipped out of Yangon by bus dressed as a monk, which helped him evade soldiers at checkpoints, who took no notice of him, he said. Within five hours, he reached a liberated area ruled by Karen National Union, one of the biggest ethnic armed organizations in the country.

“I didn’t have enough time to say goodbye to my mother. I don’t even know the color of her tombstone.”

He started training with others who had recently arrived. Soon, he said he was overseeing a small group of front-liners, protecting strategic posts.

Now, they get up at 5 a.m. every morning, Michael does a munitions check, then they perform morning drill, with breakfast at 8 a.m. They train again until lunch, and take classes into the afternoon. Once they finish dinner at 6 p.m., they head into the jungle and find the best place to sleep for the night.

They decided not to sleep in the camps because they need to avoid potential airstrikes, which have been launched in the area for the first time in decades.

Michael said his philanthropic mindset is unchanged, despite his completely changed life. But now he is helping “whoever wants democracy and truth.”


Original Post: VICE

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