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A photo of Buddhist monks being trained with firearms has made the virtual rounds over the past week, igniting vitriolic and controversial commentary.
The image, said to originate from Talawgyi – a Taileng (Red Shan) village close to Kachin State capital Myitkyina – shows uniformed men standing over several others who were robed and armed.
Some of those in uniform donned badges signifying the Burma Army Northern Regional Military Command. Web commentators reacted fast, some claiming that the photo was forged in an attempt to discredit the Buddhist religion.
The Shan Ethnic Affairs Organisation (SEAO) denied the training of monks, and defended military training from the Burmese armed forces, claiming that it makes minorities – such as the Red Shan – less vulnerable to abuse by other ethnic militias.
Last year in Myitkyina, ethnic Shans gathered en masse to protest alleged human rights violations by the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), including accusations of forced recruitment.
DVB reported the release of 26 Red Shan by the KIA in January. The Taileng National Development Party (TNDP) believed at the time that as many as 51 people were being held against their will.
SEAO deputy-chair Sai Sang Wai said the Burmese Army’s Northern Regional Military Command has been providing militia training for local villagers in northern Burma for about two years. This has included the Shan population, serving as a defence against alleged KIA forced-recruitment drives.
Training has not included religious practitioners, he said.
According to Sai Sang Wai, men who appear to be monks might be young ‘temporary monks’ – men who enter the monastery for good karma, a common practice in Burma.
“It was absolutely not military training for monks – I assume they were novices, temporary monks, and not from Talawgyi,” said Sai San Wai, adding that the group will talk to local monasteries to prevent such scenes in the future.
“The novices are like that – they’d also jump on motorbikes,” he said. “What they did was inappropriate as it can tarnish the image of the Buddhist religion.”
Sai San Wei confirmed that some training sessions were carried out in January 2014, and said that the training drives down the incidence of forced-recruitment and extortion at the hands of the KIA.