Exiled Myanmar Buddhist Leader Dies Demanding Tolerance and Democracy

By The Irrawaddy 31 October 2022

Sayadaw Ashin Arriyawuntha Biwunsa, a prominent Buddhist leader and vocal critic of Myanmar’s junta, died on Thursday of a heart attack in the Thai border town of Mae Sot.

The 71-year-old abbot of Myawaddy Mingyi monastery in Mandalay Region fled this year to avoid being re-arrested.

The well-respected religious leader was detained during the coup on February 1, 2021, along with elected leaders and political activists when junta troops raided his monastery within hours of seizing power.

U Arriyawuntha was disrobed following the arrest and forced to wear civilian clothes. He was accused of “incitement against state stability” and jailed in Obo Prison for six months.

The abbot was released in August last year but junta forces tried to rearrest him after he condemned military rule.

He told the media that as a member of the Sangha it was his duty to point out wrongdoings whether done by soldiers or monks and it would be wrong for the Sangha to keep quiet because of fear.

‘Dharma democracy’

Ashin Min Thunya, one of U Arriyawuntha’s disciples who joined him in exile, said the monk wanted dharma or true democracy to flourish in Myanmar.

In his last address, he urged people to remain united and work hard to make Myanmar a dharma democracy where there is no place for “ah dharma” or injustice.

Myawaddy Mingyi Sayadaw at a court in Mandalay on February 3, 2021, after being arrested and disrobed / AFP

Another Buddhist monk Ashin Tezananda said the monk always worried about people’s suffering.

“Sayadaw said our citizens deserve true democracy. He strongly and consistently condemned the oppressors. He resisted oppression and gave us a lot of strength in the resistance movement,” he said.
U Arriyawuntha was also a vocal critic of the Buddhist nationalist movement.

In 2019, he was sued by the army for criticizing military donations of around 30 million kyats to the hardline Buddhist nationalist group Ma Ba Tha, saying the military was funding ultranationalist monks preaching hatred. He said Ma Ba Tha defied “Buddhist rules”.

He publicly criticized influential Sitagu Sayadaw, who has close ties to junta chief Min Aung Hlaing, for his discriminatory remarks against other religions and for failing to condemn the military’s killings of civilians.

After the coup, the abbot also opposed regime attempts to exploit religion after finding allies among high-profile monks, including Sitagu Sayadaw.

Ashin Min Thunya described U Arriyawuntha as a rare scholarly monk.

“Sayadaw scared ultranationalist monks as provided well-constructed criticism that accords with Buddhist philosophy,” the disciple said.

Sayadaw U Arriyawuntha to the left of Pope Francis at an interfaith meeting in Yangon in November 2017. / Vatican Radio

Born in Myingyan, Mandalay Region, U Arriyawuntha joined the monkhood after finishing high school with excellent grades and achieved the title of Buddhist scholar at 26. Only 11 monks achieved the same title during the 20th century.

He earned widespread admiration for his philanthropic work and collaboration with different religious groups for interfaith harmony.

Irreplaceable loss’

Messages have arrived from across the globe.

The civilian National Unity Government said he performed outstanding religious tasks and stood with the people against successive military dictatorships since 1988, showing the right path. It said the whole nation mourned.

The Spring Revolution Muslim Network said the abbot’s death was “a huge and irreplaceable loss, not only for the revolution but also for the country”.

It said Myanmar’s Muslims will always remember and respect the monk for standing up for minority rights and against radical nationalism.

“We vow to continue the revolution until a federal democratic country that the Sayadaw wished to see is established,” the group said.

Condolences from various organizations were read at Monday’s funeral and the service was followed by prayers.

The Independent Catholics for Justice in Myanmar said it was a great loss for the country and for those who fight for truth and dharma.

“He was a courageous advocate who preached for truth and dharma and guided the people since before the military coup,” the group said.

Benedict Rogers of the International human rights organization Christian Solidarity Worldwide said the death was “a terrible loss for all who care about interfaith dialogue and harmony, freedom of religion and beliefs and human rights”.