When dawn arrives in normal times, 80-year-old Buddhist monk Maha Bodhi Myaing Sayadaw emerges from his meditation on the plains of northern Myanmar to silently receive food offerings from a handful of followers.
Now each morning, crowds of pilgrims line his path, hoping for a glimpse of the monk who has become an unwitting embodiment of hope and solace for thousands in the coup-wracked country.
Myanmar has endured eight months of crisis since the military seized power in February, upending a short-lived experiment with democratic rule.
For crowds of the faithful, Sayadaw’s presence provides an antidote to the “three catastrophes”: the military’s ousting of the government, the ravages of the pandemic and an economy ruined by nearly nine months of unrest.
“I came here to worship Sayadaw because… he likes to offer the people peace and stability,” said Khaing Thiri Tun, 40, a housewife who drove five hours from Mandalay to his small monastery in the Sagaing region.
What started as a trickle of visitors when the monk was first spotted at the start of the rainy season has become a massive crowd, swollen by social media posts.
Some claim his reemergence has brought calm to the surrounding area even as fighting escalates elsewhere in Sagaing between the military and anti-coup resisters.
“Our region is stable when Sayadaw receives the pilgrims,” Kaythi, 35, told AFP.
For her and other Sagaing locals, the influx has brought material as well as spiritual benefits.
Previously a farmer, Kaythi is one of many to have started working as a motorcycle taxi driver, ferrying pilgrims up the single-lane dirt road to the Nyeyadham monastery.
Company manager Moe Zaw hoped a sight of Sayadaw would cure the back pain he has suffered since undergoing surgery, but was worried about his safety on the 700-kilometre (430-mile) journey from commercial hub Yangon.
But the route was peaceful and now his pain is gone, he said.
“I believe there is no danger to us because of Sayadaw’s power and benevolence,” he added.
– ‘We will shoot’ –
In Myanmar, monks are seen as a supreme moral authority. They often play a role in organising communities and at times have even mobilised opposition to the military regimes that have ruled the country for the better part of 60 years.
Huge demonstrations sparked by fuel price hikes in 2007 were led by monks, and the clergy also mobilised relief efforts after 2008’s devastating Cyclone Nargis and junta inaction.
But the country’s Buddhist clergy has been split on the latest coup.
While monks have joined street protests opposing the power grab, some prominent religious leaders have also defended the new junta.
“Sayadaw hasn’t said anything about the political situation,” said Khin Maung Win, one of his close followers who supervises the morning audiences.
“He’s serving his religious duty.”
More than 1,100 civilians have been killed and almost 9,000 arrested as the military cracks down on resistance to its rule, according to a local monitoring group.
Sagaing has seen some of the bloodiest fighting between junta troops and “people’s defence forces”, with villagers accusing security forces of torching homes and carrying out massacres.
In the towns near the monk’s monastery, shops are closed and streets quiet.
“Do not surround us! … We will shoot,” banners outside local police stations warn any would-be protesters.
But on the hushed grounds of the Nyeyadham monastery, the pilgrims rest, share meals and say their worries feel far away.
“It’s a rare opportunity,” said Moe Moe Lwin, another visitor from Mandalay.
“Sayadaw must have his reason for receiving pilgrims… He’s appeared in front of people so they can feel peaceful and free from danger.”
But all the adoration isn’t good for the monk’s concentration, said close follower Khin Maung Win.
“The main difficulty we are facing is noise,” he told AFP.
“Sayadaw likes silence. It’s really difficult for us to keep everyone quiet.”
© Agence France-Presse