Abbot’s Comments on Bagan and ‘Islamic’ UNESCO Spark Online Melee

By Zarni Mann 31 July 2019

MANDALAY—Myanmar’s most influential abbot, Sitagu Sayadaw, has come in for widespread criticism over his comments about the inscription of the Bagan archaeological zone on UNESCO’s World Heritage list.

At a religious ceremony in Pyin Oo Lwin on Saturday, Sitagu Sayadaw said during a sermon that the Myanmar authorities had handed over the country’s heritage to an organization backed by Islamic countries.

The comment provoked an immediate backlash on social media.

In a six-minute segment from the sermon widely circulated online, Sitagu Sayadaw, also known as Ashin Nyanissara, says Bagan is a part of the Buddhist cultural heritage and had become part of Myanmar’s national cultural heritage.

“But those people [the government] gave it away to the world,” the 82-year-old abbot said.

In the clip, Sitagu Sayadaw says he became interested in the issue and studied UNESCO and Azerbaijan—the host country of the 2019 session of the World Heritage Committee held in late June and early July—on the Internet.

“I found out that the US decided to quit UNESCO, because UNESCO works for politics, not for heritage, education and science. So, when UNESCO had a funding shortage, the OIC donated most of the funds. The OIC, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, is backed by Arab oil tycoons. And they are all Muslims,” he said.

“That’s why UNESCO’s office was shifted to Azerbaijan, and is no longer at the UN’s head office in New York. Now, that organization [UNESCO] is in an Islamic country,” he added.

Showing his concern over the influence of Islamic countries, the abbot said, “They [the government] handed over Bagan to such an organization.”

The abbot added that the inscription of Bagan on UNESCO’s heritage list was supported by Azerbaijan and claimed that all the conservation work will be financially and technically supported by Islamic organizations.

Referring to the maintenance and conservation of monasteries and religious buildings in Pyin Oo Lwin and on Sagaing Hill, Sitagu Sayadaw said the heritage of a country should be maintained by its people.

The abbot also questioned the honor of those who boasted about Myanmar’s success in achieving World Heritage status for Bagan.

“It is an honor for Myanmar if we can maintain our own heritage. But giving away Myanmar’s heritage to others and letting them maintain it is nothing to be proud of,” Sitagu Sayadaw said.

“Now they [the government authorities] are giving away our heritage to them [the Islamic countries backing UNESCO], accepting their financial support, letting them maintain our [heritage sites], and later we will have to listen to whatever they say. Being proud of that is just a waste,” he added.

Bagan, which houses over 3,000 temples built from the 9th to the 13th centuries, was inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List on July 6 during the World Heritage Committee’s 43rd session on July 6 in Baku, Azerbaijan.

UNESCO’s head office and the office of World Heritage Committee are in Paris. According to the organization’s data, its biggest donors are Germany, Japan, France, the United Kingdom, Brazil, China, Italy, Canada, Russia and Spain.

The inscription was sought in an effort to prevent mismanagement of the Bagan site by involving international experts and monitoring. It is hoped this will prevent any further damage to the site by securing support from the UN and the international community.

Moreover, World Heritage sites are declared conflict free zones that are to be protected during wars and armed conflict.

Critics said Sitagu Sayadaw’s comments were uninformed and lacked credibility, and fueled religious strife. They worried it would affect the conservation work at Bagan.

One widely circulated post from the First Media CEO Ko Aung Soe Thu explained the facts about UNESCO, the World Heritage Committee and Bagan’s inscription, while expressing regret and sadness over Sitagu Sayadaw’s comments.

“It’s all gone; you have broken our trust and belief [in you]. You have traveled the world, but you said this at such an important time for the country. I’m so sad and heartbroken,” Ko Aung Soe Thu said in his post.

While there were hundreds of comments criticizing Sitagu Sayadaw, his supporters and nationalists commended the abbot and praised him for stating what they said was the truth about UNESCO, the OIC and the World Heritage Committee.

Critics and supporters of Sitagu Sayadaw argued with each other, with the latter claiming that Islamic countries were going to overpower the country and warning the monk’s critics that they would go to hell.

A commenter critical of Sitagu Sayadaw’s words wondered whether the monk, who is in his 80s, was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and said he might not know what he is saying.

Another speculated that the abbot, who was once a strong supporter of democracy and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, had changed sides, highlighting comments he had made in support of ultranationalist monk U Wirathu and the military.

One comment reads: “The Burmese used to believe and value the words of the senior Buddhist abbots such as Sitagu Sayardaw. Thus, Sayardaw should not cite in his sermons incorrect facts, and be mistaken. Moreover, Sayadaw should not create false sermons by neglecting the ethics and discipline of the monkhood.”