Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

A Famous Buddhist Teacher Is Under Fire for Backing Myanmar’s Junta

Sitagu Sayadaw once protested for democracy but now preaches nationalism.

A policeman at the entrance to the archbishop's house greets the prominent Buddhist monk Sitagu Sayadaw
A policeman at the entrance to the archbishop's house greets the prominent Buddhist monk Sitagu Sayadaw in Yangon, Myanmar, on Nov. 28, 2017. Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP

Dressed in their green army dress uniforms, Maj. Gen. Tun Tun Naung and his regional commanders took off their shoes and knelt before the bald Buddhist monk in his red-brown robe. Extending their arms and giving the monk dana (gifts and offerings), they listened to him and then praised his wisdom. It was Feb. 4, just three days after the latest military coup consolidated the military’s supreme power in Myanmar, and the junta was paying tribute to one of the most powerful religious figures in the country, Sitagu Sayadaw (also known as Ashin Nyanissara; ashin and sayadaw are both honorifics for Buddhist teachers).

Sitagu Sayadaw’s participation and endorsement in the democratic movement of the late 1980s against the authoritarian Tatmadaw, the Myanmar name for the armed forces, now stands in sharp contrast to his acceptance of military rule during the recent coup.

Pictures of Sitagu Sayadaw, who once championed democracy, repeatedly receiving dana from generals in recent years—including Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the current de facto leader of the military government—demonstrate his shift from protester to power broker. And, more broadly, it demonstrates the movement of many of Myanmar’s elite Buddhist monks from dissent to support of armed nationalism over the past 30 years.

Dressed in their green army dress uniforms, Maj. Gen. Tun Tun Naung and his regional commanders took off their shoes and knelt before the bald Buddhist monk in his red-brown robe. Extending their arms and giving the monk dana (gifts and offerings), they listened to him and then praised his wisdom. It was Feb. 4, just three days after the latest military coup consolidated the military’s supreme power in Myanmar, and the junta was paying tribute to one of the most powerful religious figures in the country, Sitagu Sayadaw (also known as Ashin Nyanissara; ashin and sayadaw are both honorifics for Buddhist teachers).

Sitagu Sayadaw’s participation and endorsement in the democratic movement of the late 1980s against the authoritarian Tatmadaw, the Myanmar name for the armed forces, now stands in sharp contrast to his acceptance of military rule during the recent coup.

Pictures of Sitagu Sayadaw, who once championed democracy, repeatedly receiving dana from generals in recent years—including Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the current de facto leader of the military government—demonstrate his shift from protester to power broker. And, more broadly, it demonstrates the movement of many of Myanmar’s elite Buddhist monks from dissent to support of armed nationalism over the past 30 years.

Since his involvement in the protests of 1988, Sitagu Sayadaw has wavered in his allegiance to both democratic and military governments in Myanmar’s decadeslong struggle for democracy. Buddhist nationalism and a desire to maintain Buddhism’s national preeminence has become a dominant ideology for many monks in the country. As we have written previously, Buddhist nationalist monks have often supported military rule due to the military’s hard-line and Islamophobic stance on Buddhist practice and propaganda, in which all non-Buddhists are presented as a threat to Myanmar’s religious identity. Those fears have played a role in Sitagu Sayadaw’s passage from democratic icon to an uneasy supporter of the junta.

Sitagu Sayadaw was born on Feb. 23, 1937, in Thegon Township, a rural portion of British-ruled colonial Burma not far from the eastern banks of the Irrawaddy River. Ordained as a monk in 1957, nine years after the country gained independence, he gradually ascended the ranks of the Buddhist hierarchy. In Myanmar, a country that is overwhelmingly Theravada Buddhist, the daily lives of laypeople are mutually dependent on the sangha, or Buddhist monastic community, through meritorious giving and religious teaching. The sangha has been prominent for centuries in Myanmar, with monastics often playing a role not only as religious figures but also as conduits for sociopolitical change. In 1977, Sitagu Sayadaw established his first monastery and began gathering a following with his charismatic preaching, as well as through charity and development projects that began in the 1980s.

Toward the end of the 1980s, the totalitarian government led by Ne Win and his Burma Socialist Programme Party began to collapse. The momentum culminated in 1988 during nationwide protests and civil disobedience now known as the 8888 Uprising. Students were the primary instigators of the demonstrations, but “monks joined the protest” while “the military tried to divide with the usual tactics,” Tun Myint, an associate professor of political science at Carleton College and a student protest leader at the time, told us in an interview.

During this period, Sitagu Sayadaw, already well known, began speaking out against the government. During one famous speech, the monk criticized the Socialist Party by invoking the Ten Duties of the King set down in early Buddhist texts. By doing so, he questioned not only the authority of the country’s leaders but also their legitimacy as devout Buddhists. It is likely this speech and the subsequent violent crackdown on protesters that led Sitagu Sayadaw to a period of temporary exile in the United States, where he studied world religions. On his return, he found that he retained a substantial following.

Sitagu Sayadaw helped initiate a gradual change in charitable donation practices within Myanmar. Despite his religious role, he has supported secular and socially responsible charitable giving, even to organizations and projects beyond the monastery. While most donations are still given directly to monks and monasteries, this marks a notable change. Matthew Walton, an assistant professor of comparative political theory at the University of Toronto and a prominent scholar of Myanmar’s politics, observed: “People in Myanmar have always done this work on local scales … but Sitagu is one of a few monks who has really changed people’s views on proper donation practices.”

Sitagu Sayadaw’s reputation continued to grow along with the nascent anti-junta movement. In 2007, thousands of monks took to the streets to combat the unfair policies of the Tatmadaw junta in protests known as the Saffron Revolution. However, Sitagu Sayadaw did not join them. Despite the involvement of thousands of other monks, this time he abstained from activism, going so far as to bar monks in his monastery from engaging in the protests themselves.

While many monks at this time protested in favor of democracy, a growing number believed in a Buddhist nationalism in which the 2007 movement was primarily a means to that end. For them, “participation in the 2007 Saffron Revolution did not stem from a belief in fundamental freedoms or universal suffrage,” Melyn McKay, a noted scholar of Myanmar state and society and tutor in social anthropology at the University of Oxford’s Exeter College, said in an interview with us. Rather, it was a belief that “democracy would better enable the Buddhist polity to elect leaders able and willing to ensure the health and well-being of the imagined Buddhist ‘state’” that drove them.

Sitagu Sayadaw’s prestige has expanded in part through his budding role in public life. In 2008, his stature grew further when he sent fleets of boats and trucks with disaster relief to areas impacted by Cyclone Nargis, which killed over 100,000 people in Myanmar. Within a week, he had relief centers set up in the four worst-hit towns. This broadened his popularity and coincided with his increasing connections to political power. Sitagu Sayadaw gained fresh attention with the growing international spotlight on Myanmar and its possible democratization; both U.S. President Barack Obama and Pope Francis met with him during their visits to the country. And when clashes between Buddhists and Muslims began in western Myanmar in 2012, he offered himself as a mediator, taking part in interfaith dialogues aiming to mend the wounds between communities. But, at the same time, he also gave speeches warning darkly about the threat of Islam.

In 2015, Myanmar passed its strictest anti-Muslim laws yet, unprecedented in their intrusion into traditionally private life. They dictate that women must space their pregnancies by three years or more in areas in which the Muslim population is the largest. They require people to gain approval from a local government board to change religions. They ban marital infidelity and polygamy. And they stipulate that marriages may be prevented if a member of the community objects to the marriage. Sitagu Sayadaw did not just cheer the laws—he harkened back to what he saw as a historical precedent to justify religious intervention in politics. Just as the pope had helped form Christian Democratic parties to blunt the spread of communism a century earlier, so now could Buddhist leaders stop the spread of Islamism through the country’s laws, he argued. Since then, despite Buddhist monastic law forbidding it, Sitagu Sayadaw has offered to influence monks to serve in the military and enforce the state’s dictates toward the Muslim community.

When Sitagu Sayadaw unites the military and monks for perceived national interests, he sometimes draws upon the mythic past for inspiration and justification. In a 2017 sermon, for instance, he utilized an important Theravada Buddhist text that depicts the ancient King Dutthagamani of the Anuradhapura Kingdom (which covered a portion of present-day Sri Lanka) to connect Buddhist conceptions of righteousness with violent military conquest. The sermon employed a mythical justification for killing thousands in battle that suggested most of the ancient king’s enemies were not truly human. The bloodiest war was hardly wrong, Sitagu Sayadaw seemed to say, if the enemies were the right ones.

While such arguments have been used before by Buddhist rulers and monks to justify bloodshed, such sermons are also part of the broader dehumanizing efforts by both state and religious figures that actively depict Muslims as an imminent danger to the majority race and religion in Myanmar. This burgeoning religious nationalism occasionally draws criticism. One notable monk called Sitagu Sayadaw’s words “dangerous.” But these are lonely voices. His narrative of a Buddhism justified in suppressing the Muslim community is the dominant narrative within Myanmar.

Along with Sitagu Sayadaw’s role as a Buddhist nationalist in Myanmar, he has worked to remain a prominent figure in the country’s religious and political life. He often speaks to large crowds and frequently has videographers with him, recording his sermons and interactions for dissemination. Gradually, he has cultivated relationships with figures in politics and the security structure. Myanmar leaders attend his birthday parties. And he has flaunted his international connections. Portraits of him and Obama hang in the schools he founded. But this has also drawn quiet criticism from more nationalistic members of the monastic community, even from the Patriotic Association of Myanmar, a religious extremist group known by the Myanmar abbreviation Ma Ba Tha, of which he was once vice chairman. As McKay told us, “Amongst Ma Ba Tha leadership, for instance, it was not uncommon to hear Nyanissara referred to as an ‘international monk,’ a subtle slight meant to convey that his interests center on his own reputation and building it beyond the countries’ borders and not on protecting and promoting the Myanmar Buddhist polity.”

This year, however, Sitagu Sayadaw’s role has shifted once again. After the military junta began killing protesters, his silence led to criticism, including on his own social media pages. In March, though, he finally spoke out, issuing a statement with other prominent monks that called on the military leader Min Aung Hlaing to restrain security forces and to halt the “violent crushing [of] unarmed civilians immediately.” Just as in 1988, he called upon the leadership to follow the Ten Duties of the King.

The relationship between Myanmar’s faithful and its religious figures is complex. While most households in Myanmar give alms to Buddhist institutions, they have a wide variety from which to choose. Politically outspoken monks run the risk of worshippers choosing other monasteries for their alms. With clear signs that most of the population oppose the Tatmadaw’s violence, it is perhaps not altogether surprising that Sitagu Sayadaw would be pressured to change his stance.

A decade ago, Myanmar was seen as a bright spot of political progress. Since then, amid the global authoritarian revival, its leaders have committed genocide and killed peaceful protesters. No collective international response of significance has come, and the regime’s worst actions have received tacit support from authoritarians in other countries. As Tun Myint said, “The rise of autocracies around the world is a threat to democracy everywhere.” But the public protests and criticism of leaders, including Sitagu Sayadaw, have not been fruitless. This year’s protests have demonstrated an elusive unity across the divisions of Myanmar’s society. The ability of public criticism and demands for accountability from protesters to elicit censure of military violence from Sitagu Sayadaw, one of Myanmar’s most prominent nationalists, offers a faint hope that the threat to democracy may be repulsed.

Brenna Artinger is an independent researcher and holds an MPhil in Buddhist Studies from the University of Oxford.

Michael Rowand is a writer specializing in international affairs and Director of Development at Africa ASAP.

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