6 Minutes To Read

Challenging the distortion of influential monks?

6 Minutes To Read

Lynn Htwe looks at responses to Sitagu Sayadaw’s comments on Pagan’s recognition by UNESCO.

The current digital divide in Myanmar between those who can access the internet and those who cannot is not as wide as under the previous military regime. According to The Business of a Better World (BSR), Myanmar had 20 million estimated Facebook users as of October 2018Facebook can provide general reflections of the current ongoing political, social, economic, cultural discourse, about what is happening in the country, though the hot topics of the Burmese public sphere can vary day-to-day on social media. Some hot issues disappear but can spark again at unexpected times. Recently, social media users in Myanmar generated outcry for Victoriaa three year old child who faced sexual abuse in Naypyidaw. Now users are focusing on the natural disasters in Mon and Karen States where at least 69 local residents died due to a landslide in Mon State and the recent fighting in northern Shan State.

Conversely, widespread criticism of Myanmar’s most revered Buddhist monk, Sitagu Sayadaw Ashin Nyanissara, for his comments on UNESCO’s recognition of Pagan as a World Heritage site did not really break through as a hot topic. But, nonetheless, the responses of those who discussed Sitagu Sayadaw’s comments provides an example of people’s constructive engagement on social media. Such engagement ultimately tries to counter the dominant discourse of influential monks who use their moral weight to influence Burmese people. It also provides encouraging signs as to attempts to counter the disinformation of an influential monk in Myanmar. That Burmese social media users’ critical comments of the honourable Sayadaw went viral was strange because ordinary Burmese people usually fear speaking out against revered monks like Sitagu Sayadaw, even as they criticise other monks who inspired ultra-nationalism (such as Wirathu). Most Burmese residents regard Sitagu Sayadaw as a well-respected, influential religious figure for his philanthropic works, and for his running of meditation centres in many countries. This gives him a kind of moral weight and influence over ordinary Burmese people.

However, the political stance of Sitagu is dualistic. In the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, Sitagu joined the rebellion and criticized the military government. He also went into exile in Tennessee, before returning to Myanmar to run a Buddhist monastery. His sermon about the 10 rules that rulers must abide by was famous under the military regime. In 2017, honouring his scholarly works, former opposition leader and current State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi awarded him the title of Abhidhajamahārahthaaguru or “Honourable, Excellent and Great Teacher of Country and the State.” But Sayadaw has a close relation with Burmese Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing and even urged the military officers to work together with military, Sangha and government. He is also associated with the nationalist group Ma Ba Tha. That reflects the analysis of Matthew Walton who has explored “the use of Buddhism both supporting and opposing political authority.” He examines the character of the monks as the supporter of the state, who “used their moral authority to chastise political leaders, and even joined in protests opposing the State, such as those in 1988 and 2007.”

Sitagu made inhumane comments based on justifications from Buddhist historical chronicles after the Rohingya conflict had taken place in Northern Arakan State, where 700,000 Rohingya crossed into Bangladesh. At that time, not all Burmese agreed with Sayadaw’s message, but criticism of his comments was not yet widespread. On 30 October 2017, at a Bayintnaung military garrison in Karen State, Sitagu preached to members of the military. In the sermons, Sayadaw relayed a story of King Dutugemunu’s mass killings of non-Buddhists as justified action as a defence of religion. International scholars and journalists decried his comments. Walton wrote, “his remarks had a chilling purpose: to provide a religious justification for the mass killing of non-Buddhists.” He sadly concluded that even monks who have the same moral and cultural authority did not challenge the words of Sitagu.

But, importantly, this situation has changed, and now Buddhists are beginning to speak out and challenge some of the issues that Sitagu spread misinformation about. After the Sayadaw made a comment about Pagan on UNESCO recognition, critical responses to the disinformation spread by reverend monks emerged on social media. Exploring the criticism of Sitagu Sayadaw comments, this article, perhaps optimistically, would like to consider the social meaning of these rare cases of criticism, asking whether it is countering the dominant discourse of one of the most reverend monks in Myanmar, and whether it reflects a change from or improvement upon what Walton observed in 2017 .

First, I will provide some background: On July 6, the international body UNESCO recognized Pagan as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Two weeks after this recognition, on July 29, the Facebook page of “Sitagu Sayadaw Dharma Thabin-Live” (translated as “Sitagu Sayadaw Dharma Ceremony-Live” in English) – a page run by the devotees of Sayadaw – posted the six-minute segment of  the Sitagu Sayadaw’s comments on UNESCO’s recognition of Pagan as a World Heritage site. The text summary under the video reads: “This six-minute video is the Sayadaw’s point of view on UNESCO’s recognition of Pagan. All people can freely comment on it.” The six-minute video was originally part of a live video of Sitagu Sayadaw’s July 27 sermon that was part of a religion ceremony in Pyin Oo Lwin. It is not clear why the devotees of Sayadaw edited the six-minute video and posted it on Facebook. But this effort was clearly well-planned because the video even included the addition of a  map, edited to show the location of the host country, Azerbaijan, where the session of the World Heritage Committee was held in 2019. This short video received over 35,000 likes, 2,100 love, 370 surprise, 150 laugh, 138 sad and 25 angry reactions from Facebook users. Moreover, the video clip was shared by 25,000 users. These total responses outnumber, often doubling, the reactions received on other videos.

Sitagu Sayadaw’s distorted remarks articulated concerns that Pagan, as a symbol of Myanmar’s national identity, would now come under threat when in the control of an international body such as UNESCO. He misconstrued facts about UNESCO by linking it with the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. According to Sitagu Sayadaw, “Strangely, I learned about the history of UNESCO from an encyclopaedia in my own library. I learnt that the US decided to quit as a member of UNESCO in 1984, thereafter suspending all contributions of funding. The US retreated from the organization because UNESCO has a political agenda, and oppresses other countries despite its claim to work for heritage, education and science. Without the contribution of funding from the US, the funding dried up. So it is clear, as learned people knew, that the OIC contributed the main funding. Arab oil tycoons contributed the funding. All are Muslim. That is why the headquarters of UNESCO has moved to Azerbaijan and is not located in New York.”

He followed this up by explaining that the location of Azerbaijan was one surrounded by Muslim and Communist countries. It is difficult to figure out what the motivation and agenda of Sitagu Sayadaw was when giving this kind of comment on UNESCO’s recognition of Pagan as a World Heritage Site. But Sayadaw has had previous experience with UNESCO because he gave a speech at “International Visek Day 2018,” which was held by UNESCO in Paris in France according to the Venerable Ashin Naynissara (Sitagu/Thegon Sayadaw) Facebook page photos.

Following his comments, Burmese Facebook users condemned Sayadaw’s distortion of facts about UNESCO. This video received 2,600 comments. The majority of comments defended and supported the Sayadaw’s preaching. However, a minority of users blatantly challenged the intentions of Sayadaw’s misinformation and the wrong facts about UNESCO. Facebook user, “Lucky Man,” for example, responded by listing the top ten countries that provide funding the international body, referencing the official website of UNESCO. Facebook user Naing Tun wrote that the UNESCO office is still in France, and gave detailed facts about the host countries where various meetings and sessions were held. But some also openly criticised the Sayadaw and questioned the hidden agenda of the sermon. Facebook user Htoo Kyae commented that he was sorry to hear this and never thought that Sayadaw would be so narrow-minded: “We need to understand that there are a lot of advantages for being recognized by UNESCO. Especially, the technology on how to preserve and conserve it”, he wrote. Hlaing Soe asked that he not pass misleading facts on to his followers: “I respect you. In your audiences there are knowledgeable persons, but do not pass on misleading facts to your audiences who know nothing.” Moreover, some users widely circulated the posts, criticizing and expressing sadness over Sitagu’s comments.

Both the narratives, Sitagu Sayadaw’s comments and the critical responses to Sayadaw’s speech, are not beyond the discourse of nationalism: defending Myanmar’s national identity. But there is a question to raise about why people responded more critically towards the Sitagu Sayadaw’s comments on Pagan, rather than the earlier inhumane comments on the religious justification for the mass killing of non-Buddhists. There can be many reasons, but it may show that the influence of religious leaders in Myanmar has dropped compared to in the past. According to the recently published survey of People Alliance for Credible Election, the level of trust in religious leaders plunged from 80 percent in 2016 to 48 percent in 2019. Moreover, it could be that some residents would have liked to speak out following the Sitagu’s comments on the mass killing of non-Buddhists, but that they withheld criticism. The comment of Facebook user Nyi Naing can support this idea, writing: “I was never impressed with you after you said that we can kill the Kalar who did not take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.” But the critical narratives that went viral in response to the comments of Sitagu Sayadaw are a spark of hope and an initial light that can break the traditional cultural norms that restrain people from criticizing the sermons of the most influential monks in Myanmar.

Lynn Htwe is ethnic journalist and researcher from Myanmar. His research “The Role of Ethnic Media in New Myanmar” was published by Chiang Mai University, Thailand. He has also written articles for Bangkok Post, Asia Sentinel, Walkley Magazine, the Irrawaddy, and Karen news.