Burma

Monk Praises Myanmar Junta Chief for Honoring Prominent Nationalist

By The Irrawaddy 21 March 2022

Sitagu Sayadaw, who has grown closer to Myanmar’s military since the coup, has praised junta leader Min Aung Hlaing as a “king” or head of state of great generosity and wisdom after the coup maker conferred Myanmar’s highest Buddhist title upon U Tilawka Bhivamsa, the former chairman of nationalist group Ma Ba Tha. 

Earlier this month, the regime conferred the Abhidhajamahāraṭṭhaguru title on U Tilawka Bhivamsa. It is an honorific Buddhist title conferred by the government on monks who have contributed to the study of Buddhism. Also known as Insein Ywama Sayadaw, U Tilawka Bhivamsa is the former chairman of the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, better known by its Burmese acronym Ma Ba Tha. 

A reception was held in Yangon on Sunday in honor of Insein Ywama Sayadaw to celebrate the conferment of the title. At the reception, Sitagu praised both the giver and the title recipient, saying Insein Ywama Sayadaw has become the “mentor of the king” or “mentor of the country”.  The event was broadcast live on the Facebook page of Sitagu Sayadaw.  

Though it is the highest religious title in Myanmar, Abhidhajamahāraṭṭhaguru is not as grand as Sitagu Sayadaw described. There are currently more than 100 other recipients in Myanmar. The title does come with some entitlements; recipients can get free rides on national airlines, buses and trains. 

Insein Ywama Sayadaw U Tilawka Bhivamsa and Sitagu Sayadaw.

Praising Insein Ywama Sayadaw, Sitagu Sayadaw, who is also known as Ashin Nyanissara, said: “Frankly speaking, [Insein Ywama Sayadaw] was imprisoned under one government. He was coerced various ways under another government.” 

Insein Ywama Sayadaw was put behind bars for nearly one year under the previous military regime, which called itself the State Law and Order Restoration Council, after he refused to meet and perform religious activities—such as accepting offertories from—the regime leaders after they ordered the killing of protesting Buddhist monks. 

The other government he referred to is the civilian National League for Democracy (NLD) government, which clashed with Ma Ba Tha, of which Insein Ywama Sayadaw is a former head.

Born out of the anti-Muslim movement, the nationalist group came into being in 2013, two years after Min Aung Hlaing became the military chief in 2011. 

During the U Thein Sein government the group successfully lobbied for the approval of a controversial set of four laws on race and religion that imposed restrictions on interfaith marriage, birth spacing, polygamy and conversion, believed to be targeted at Muslims. Sitagu Sayadaw was then the vice chair of Ma Ba Tha. 

Insein Ywama Sayadaw U Tilawka Bhivamsa

As the group continued to engage in hate speech and incite racial and religious hatred, it clashed with the NLD government, and in May 2017 the state-backed cleric organization Ma Ha Na announced that Ma Ba Tha was an unlawful organization and banned it from operating under that name. The group has since rebranded itself as the Buddha Dhamma Charity Foundation. U Aung Ko, who served as the religious affairs minister for the NLD government, was recently sentenced to 12 years in prison by the junta. 

“Far from being treated as a mentor, he was coerced in various ways [under the previous military regime and NLD government]. He has only become the mentor of the country today. He has become the mentor while the country is under the rule of the king (leader) who has deep generosity and wisdom,” Sitagu Sayadaw said at the event. 

For all his badmouthing of previous governments, the monk was close to General Khin Nyunt of the previous military regime during the heyday of the powerful military spy chief. Under the U Thein Sein government, he openly endorsed the ex-general to take the presidency for the next five years. Under the NLD government, he ate meals offered by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and received the Abhidhajamahāraṭṭhaguru title conferred by her government. 

The monk has drawn criticism for remaining tight-lipped about the junta’s atrocities since the coup. His praise of Min Aung Hlaing as a “king” or head of state of great generosity and wisdom while thousands of people have been killed in crackdowns, raids and air and artillery strikes, hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced from their homes, and millions of people have been suffering from various forms of atrocities strikes many as ugly. 

The 85-year-old monk has thus earned the nickname “the canny monk” for his ability to get on well with any government in power. 

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