Around the turn of the 21st century, when I was still a political prisoner, I would often strain to hear the sermons of one of Myanmar’s most prominent Buddhist monks through the rusty iron bars of my cell.
The voice of Ashin Nyanissara—or Sitagu Sayadaw, as he is better known to his many followers—is still a familiar one inside the country’s prisons. Broadcast through loudspeakers, his words invite inmates to seek liberation—not from their jailers, but from their own spiritual defilements.
During my years behind bars, his dhamma talks were indeed a source of salvation. In those days, political detainees were denied access to books, writing materials, and letters from loved ones. Utterly cut off from the outside world, we regarded anything that delivered us from the confines of our lives as prisoners as a blessing. And so we listened to Nyanissara’s homilies with a special intensity.
Known for his eloquence, and for basing his sermons on Buddhist lore rather than on practical instructions on how to achieve enlightenment, Nyanissara has been a household name in Myanmar since the 1970s. After 1988, when the country tried unsuccessfully to rid itself of its military rulers, his fame grew as he chastised the newly installed regime by speaking often about the Buddha’s teachings on good kings—standards that stood in stark contrast to the brutal behaviour of the junta then in power.
This earned him a brief period in exile. After he returned to the country, however, he seemed to get along better with the generals. But this wasn’t particularly troubling to his devotees, as monks are generally expected to avoid overt involvement in politics, and to be open to engaging with even the worst elements of society. It wasn’t until 2007, when the military carried out a merciless assault on monks taking part in the Saffron Revolution, that Nyanissara again became mildly critical of the country’s self-appointed rulers.
In a country where most other voices opposed to oppression had been silenced, these gentle rebukes were profoundly heartening to many. They offered psychological support to a nation that was under constant, crushing pressure to accept the unacceptable. And so, Nyanissara came to be seen, in a distinctly Buddhist way, as a sort of saviour figure, simply by virtue of his ability to remind Myanmar’s people of the fundamental sanity of their demands for justice.
A decade later, however, this image began to unravel. In May 2017, he delivered a sermon to an audience of military family members that appeared to condone the killing of non-Buddhists. Coming at a time when the army was facing accusations of genocide for its attacks on Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State, this was seen by some observers as not just a deviation from the loving-kindness preached by the Buddha, but as an act of complicity in crimes against humanity.
As jarring as this was to many, it did not come as a great surprise to those who have followed Nyanissara’s career in recent years. It was certainly not the first time he had expressed antipathy towards Muslims. Over the years, he turned increasingly to the theme of the dominance of Islam in countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Malaysia, where Buddhism had once flourished. While doing so, he often projected an image of himself as the protector of the faith followed by the majority of Myanmar citizens, even though Buddhism has no place for religious leaders who occupy such a role. Monks are meant to set an example for those who seek to achieve liberation by overcoming their own mental shackles—not by lashing out at external enemies, real or imagined.
Interestingly, it was after Myanmar began to open up to the outside world just over a decade ago that Nyanissara’s preoccupation with Islam became more pronounced. Perhaps this was because the military-orchestrated transition to a quasi-democracy that started in 2010 didn’t just usher in limited political rights; it also showed signs of eroding respect for traditional power hierarchies, including that of the Buddhist monastic order.
While monks still had a moral authority that the military had long since lost, some began to feel that their influence was waning as society changed. New forces were coming into play—everything from party politics and civil society to a free press and social media. While many may have adjusted well to this new reality, others saw it as more of a threat. This was particularly true of certain senior monks who feared that in the long run, they would lose the ability to collect the donations that they wielded to great effect to enhance their own prestige.
It was in this context that a new Buddhist nationalist movement, calling for the protection of “race and religion,” emerged. The most notorious embodiment of this reactionary force was the Patriotic Association of Myanmar—better known by its Burmese acronym, Ma Ba Tha—of which Nyanissara was a founding member and vice chair.
Although he later distanced himself from Ma Ba Tha as it came to be dominated by more extreme figures like Wirathu—the monk who spearheaded the anti-Muslim 969 Movement—Nyanissara was clearly on board with its central message. He demonstrated this in July 2013, around six months before the group was formally established, when he addressed a major gathering of monks in Yangon and stoked their growing paranoia by speaking of how ancient Buddhist pagodas had been torn down in the city’s centre to make way for mosques.
An unholy alliance
As I noted in my reporting at the time, that event was also widely attended by members of the then-governing Union Solidarity Party (USDP). Two years later, the military proxy party was soundly defeated by the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi. And it was at that point that Nyanissara—who until then had avoided being too closely associated with the military—began to forge a new relationship with Myanmar’s top general.
As the country geared up for its next election in 2020, Nyanissara worked hand in hand with Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the commander in chief of the armed forces, to burnish his image as a devout Buddhist. In 2019, they joined forces to oversee the construction of a giant, 17-metre-tall statue of the Buddha in Naypyitaw. And in February of the following year, Nyanissara organised a ceremony to confer the lengthy title of Agga Maha Mangala Dhammajoti Daja—meaning “great and noble protector of the Dhamma”—on the man whose orders had resulted in the expulsion of nearly a million Rohingya into neighbouring Bangladesh.
During that ceremony, held at the headquarters of the Yangon Regional Military Command, Nyanissara sat next to Tiloka Bhivamsa, the head of Ma Ba Tha, which by then had been banned by the NLD-led government. Meanwhile, Kumara Bhivamsa, the chief monk of the State Sangha Mahanayaka—the state-sanctioned monastic association—officiated, completing a sort of triumvirate of high-ranking monks dedicated to upholding the status quo.
After the election, Nyanissara echoed the military’s claims that there were doubts about the outcome, based on allegations that it had been rigged in favour of the NLD. Speaking to hundreds of his followers on November 16, 2020, he even made his own contribution to these unfounded conspiracy theories, claiming that a mysterious box containing 40,000 ballots had appeared out of nowhere at a polling station in Yangon.
Despite his increasingly blatant embrace of the military, however, Nyanissara remained a widely respected and even revered figure. Privately, though, some had begun to express misgivings about his charitable work, to which he dedicated much of his time and energy. His fundraising activities took him around the world, into Myanmar diaspora communities that donated huge sums of money to support his many projects. During these tours, he would stay in luxury hotels rather than local Buddhist monasteries. One follower told me that on a trip to Melbourne, Australia, about a decade ago, Nyanissara bought an expensive camera for his personal use without even bothering to check the price. Such reports of his free-spending ways were common, but rarely reached the ears of devotees back home in Myanmar, where few dared to openly criticise him.
The last straw
But all that changed after the military overthrew the elected NLD government on February 1, 2021. Many were appalled when, at a ceremony held a month and a half later to mark the birthday of Ma Ba Tha head Tiloka Bhivamsa, Nyanissara endorsed the coup regime by saying that it had shown moral integrity and great devotion to the Buddhist faith.
By continuing to back Min Aung Hlaing—even travelling with him to Russia last year for the opening of a Buddhist temple—Nyanissara has outraged many who once held him in the highest esteem. When, at an Armed Forces Day ceremony held less than two months after the coup, Myanmar’s new dictator seized on the monk’s praise to congratulate himself for his role in ridding Myanmar of “bad kalars”—using a derogatory term for people of Indian descent to refer to the Rohingya—it left an especially bitter taste in many people’s mouths. For it was on that day—March 27, 2021—that Min Aung Hlaing escalated his attacks on civilians opposed to his rule, killing hundreds around the country.
Since then, the regime has murdered thousands more. In Sagaing Region, where Nyanissara’s following has always been especially strong, junta troops torch entire villages on an almost daily basis. Countless civilians have died in these attacks, designed to terrorise them into submission. Around the country, more than a million have been displaced by the regime’s predations. And yet, nearly two full years into Myanmar’s coup-induced catastrophe, support for the resistance movement remains solid.
Against this backdrop, Nyanissara’s fall from grace is the least of the country’s worries. But it still stands as a cautionary tale to those who place their faith in religious leaders who lose sight of the fact that the real struggle is one waged within. Only when it has slain its own demons will Myanmar cease to be a nation at war with itself.