Sayadaw Ashin Arriyawuntha Biwunsa, a prominent Buddhist leader from Myanmar, is reported to have died after a heart attack on 27 October in the Thai border town of Mae Sot. He was 71 years old.
Before fleeing Myanmar earlier this year out of fear of being arrested, Arriyawuntha had served as the abbot of Myawaddy Mingyi, a Buddhist monastery in Mandalay Region, where he had become a vocal critic of Myanamr’s military government.
Retired diplomat and Oksenberg-Rohlen fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for Internationl Studies at Stanford University Scot Marciel shared on Twitter: “Really sad news. Sayadaw Ashin Arriyawuntha Biwunsa consistently spoke out for respect, tolerance, and freedom. I will remember him for his courage and sense of humor. I always left my visits with him feeling better about the world.” (Twitter)
Arriyawuntha had been detained along with numerous elected leaders and political activists after the coup that took place on 1 February 2021. Following his arrest, he was forcibly disrobed.
The military junta, which seized power from the democratically elected National League for Democracy government, accused Arriyawuntha of “incitement against state stability” and imprisoned him for six months. After his release, junta members sought to re-arrest Arriyawuntha after he spoke out against the military. According to The Irriwaddy news website, Arriyawuntha 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.” (The Irrawaddy)
Ashin Min Thunya, one of Arriyawuntha’s disciples who also fled Myanmar into exile in Thailand, said that Arriyawuntha had hoped for democracy and Buddhism to flourish in Myanmar. In his last address, Arriyawuntha reportedly urged those around him to continue the work of making Myanmar “a Dhamma democracy where there is no place for ‘ah dhamma’ or injustice.” (The Irrawaddy)
According to Ashin Tezananda, a fellow monk, Arriawuntha consistently kept the suffering of others at the forefront of his mind: “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.” (The Irrawaddy)
Arriyawuntha also spoke out against Buddhist nationalism, most notably embodied in the Ma Ba Tha movement (also known as the Patriotic Association of Myanmar). He condemned the monk U Wirathu, founder of the Buddhist nationalist 969 Movement, which propagated anti-Muslim rhetoric in Myanmar. Arriyawuntha accused the ruling military government of funding Ma Ba Tha and said that the movement defied “Buddhist rules.” (The Irrawaddy)
Along with his outspoken support of democracy, Arriyawuntha was respected as a scholar. Having joined the monkhood after high school, he achieved the title of Buddhist scholar at 26, an achievement reached by only 11 monks in the 20th century. He also worked widely in philanthropic efforts and for interfaith harmony within Myanmar and beyond.
Benedict Rogers, senior East Asia analyst at Christian Solidarity Worldwide, described Arriyawuntha’s death as “a terrible loss for all who care about interfaith dialogue and harmony, freedom of religion and beliefs and human rights.” (The Irrawaddy)
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