ONE WOULD never guess, reading the Global New Light of Myanmar, a state newspaper, that more than 500 people have been killed by the army amid protests against a military coup on February 1st. Its pages are filled with pictures of generals shaking hands with foreign dignitaries, attending meetings and making obeisance to Buddhist monks. Whereas monks were prominent in the previous bout of protests against military rule, in 2007, their role has been much more ambiguous this time.

Almost 90% of Burmese are Buddhist. Judging by the New Light’s coverage, none is more devout than Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief. After inspecting the troops on the morning of March 27th, a public holiday celebrating the army, the general hastened to the pagoda next door. He was photographed kneeling on the floor while monks, seated on chairs, were elevated above him. This act of apparent submission was in fact another expression of authority, one as symbolically important as the military parade earlier in the day.

Rulers of Myanmar have always sought the support of the sangha—the Buddhist monkhood. By lavishing donations on monasteries, kings amassed moral legitimacy. General Min Aung Hlaing is no different. Faced with a crisis, he is courting senior clerics. During his visit to the pagoda he bestowed religious titles on some of the country’s most prominent monks.

The general’s visit was also an attempt to put down a rebellion within the sangha. One of the monks in attendance was Bhaddanta Kumara Bhivamsa, the chairman of the Mahana, a body appointed by the government which oversees the monkhood. On March 16th the Mahana reportedly drew up a statement that called for an end to violent attempts to quash the protests against the coup. The committee also declared that it would cease operations until stability was restored. Before the statement could be formally submitted to the Ministry of Religious Affairs, it was leaked to a local news website.

Though it is a draft, the statement is nonetheless significant, says Richard Horsey of Crisis Group, an international watchdog. The Mahana is a “cautious, conservative body which is not prone to quick reactions or to wading into worldly affairs”, he says. The fact that the chairman of the Mahana went to a religious ceremony hosted by the commander on Armed Forces Day suggests that he may have had a change of heart. But the damage is done. The mere suggestion of the Mahana’s disapproval has emboldened monks to express their opposition to the regime, says Ashin Rsara, a monk and a leading member of the Sangha Union Strike Committee, one of many clerical groups that have formed to decry the coup.

Some monks, particularly in Mandalay, the traditional centre of Burmese Buddhism, have joined protests. Many have in effect gone on strike, by refusing alms from soldiers, their families and supporters and thus denying them the opportunity to accrue good karma. When the army tried to donate covid-19 vaccines to Ashin Rsara’s monastery, the offer was spurned. The generals, who portray the army as the protector of Buddhism, are probably worried that this religious boycott will erode soldiers’ morale, Mr Horsey argues.

Yet the generals will also be relieved by how few monks have taken to the streets. Ashin Rsara estimates that only 500 monks at most joined the biggest protests in Mandalay—a far cry from the tens of thousands of 2007. In part, that is because the generals anticipated opposition from the sangha and arrested monks who had been prominent in the protests of 2007 as soon as they took power. (Ashin Rsara was detained on March 26th.) There were also fewer monks in the cities, since many had been dispatched to village monasteries to help curb the spread of covid-19. And in 2007 it may have been the economy, rather than politics, that brought some monks out onto the streets: they feared the generals’ mismanagement was denying ordinary citizens the wherewithal to support the monkhood.

Some monks, however, do back the army, because they share its paranoid xenophobia. They have helped propagate the baseless but widely held view that Buddhism is under threat from Islam. Wisetkhana, one such nationalist firebrand, maintains, absurdly, that it was the protesters who initiated the violence, not the army: “Military officials and soldiers were taught to be patriots and to be ready to defend the country’s race and religion.”

This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline “Beggars, but choosers”