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Followers of renegade monk erect stupa next to a mosque in Karen State

A newly constructed stupa erected next to a mosque in Shwegon, in Karen State's Hlaingbwe Township, on 26 April 2016. (Photo: Htin Kyaw / Facebook)

A controversial Buddhist monk whose followers erected a stupa on the grounds of a church less than a week ago has taken another step in his campaign targeting religious sites of other faiths, this time with the construction of a similar structure next to a local mosque.

Residents of Shwegon, in Karen State’s Hlaingbwe Township, said that disciples of Thuzana, a renegade monk who played a key role in the formation of a militia group more than two decades ago, arrived in the village on Monday afternoon and had erected the new stupa before dawn the next day.

“The stupa is right next to the mosque and was erected according to the instructions of the Myainggyingu Sayadaw,” said a local Muslim woman, referring to Thuzana by his formal name as abbot of the Myainggyingu monastery.

“It was completed before dawn, by around 3 am on Tuesday. Some residents in the village informed the local police that they were building a stupa right next to a mosque but they only came to take photos,” she added.

Members of a local Border Guard Force formed in 2010 from the now-defunct Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) provided security while the stupa was erected, residents said.

The DKBA was formed in 1995 after Buddhist members of the predominantly Christian Karen National Union broke away at the instigation of Thuzana. The group was allied with the Burmese army and was one of eight signatories to last year’s Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement.

Although Shwegon has a sizeable Muslim community — around 200 of the village’s 700 households are Muslim — it has been largely untouched by the waves of communal violence that have hit other parts of Burma in recent years.

“We live in harmony with the Karen and Buddhist people — we never had a quarrel and we lived like brothers and sisters. But they are also afraid to say anything against an order coming from the monk,” said a local Muslim resident.

Similar fears were also expressed by Christians in another village in Hlaingbwe Township, after Thuzana’s followers erected a stupa on the premises of a local church last Saturday.

Earlier in the month, the monk ordered his lay disciples in the village of Kundaw to bury a Buddha statue in the compound of the St Marcus Church, marking the spot for stupa construction.

Pastor Peter of the St Marcus Church told DVB that church leaders tried to meet with Thuzana on 13 April to discuss the matter, but failed because influential Buddhist leaders and monks in the region could not mediate with Thuzana as he has armed group connections and no allegiance to any of the nine influential Buddhist sects in the country.

Thuzana’s followers on 23 April broke into the Church premises and erected the pagoda, according to a local man.

“The Myainggyingu Sayadaw’s assistants are here now and say they plan to erect the pagoda and install the hti [the stupa finial] by the end of the day,” said Saw Bado, speaking to DVB on Saturday.

According to Burmese Buddhist tradition, once a finial has been placed at the top of a stupa, it becomes a sacred monument that can’t be removed.

The Karen State government’s Mon Ethnic Affairs Minister Min Tin Win said that officials were taking steps to address the situation.

“The hti has already been installed, so we sent government officials accompanied by interfaith groups and representatives from a local monastic order to extend apologies to the Christians on behalf of the government,” said Min Tin Win.

In a similar event, Thuzana erected a stupa inside a church compound in a village in Hpa-an Township in December last year.

Reporting by Aye Nai