The highly regarded Burmese Buddhist monk Dr. Ashin Nyanissara, better known as Sitagu Sayadaw, donated US$10,000 on 16 April to an emergency relief fund created recently by Pope Francis to aid people and communities affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Sitagu Sayadaw also donated bags of rice, cooking oil, beans, onions, and salt for those in need in the Mandalay Archdiocese. The gift was made during a ceremony with Archbishop Marco Tin Win at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Mandalay.
“All we need to do is work hand in hand based on a common platform to tackle COVID-19 and carry out charitable work through solidarity,” Sitagu Sayadaw said. (Herald Malaysia Online)
Archbishop Tin Win responded to the donation, saying: “As a real friend, I am impressed with his contributions and it shows goodwill and solidarity with people who are most in need in times of crisis. His contributions send a message of interfaith harmony to people across the country.” (Herald Malaysia Online)
Sitagu Sayadaw is known as a vocal supporter of religious freedom in Myanmar and beyond. He is a leading Dharma teacher in Buddhist-majority Myanmar and is known for his promulgation of socially engaged Buddhism and humanitarian work. Sitagu Sayadaw has worked to promote interfaith dialogue and international cooperation in Myanmar, having lived briefly in the United States and later meeting with President Barack Obama and Pope Francis.
However, Sitagu Sayadaw has also drawn criticism for making questionable remarks about Myanmar’s Muslim population. During a period of aggression against the Rohingya—a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority group—in the country, he appeared to offer Myanmar’s Buddhist monks to the military during a speech, telling the commander of Myanmar’s armed forces: “There are over 400,000 monks in Myanmar. If you need them, I will tell them to begin. It’s easy.” In response to this, Ashin Sein Di Ta, abbot of the Asia Light Monastery located east of Mandalay said: “We should say clearly that if any monk, even respected ones like Sitagu Sayadaw, advocate killing, they should be defrocked.” (The New York Times)
Similarly, in 2017, academic Paul Fuller noted Sitagu Sayadaw’s invocation of a passage in the Mahavamsa that appears to justify the killing of non-Buddhists: “Given his reputation, we might have expected that the Sayadaw would have renounced all forms of violence against the Rohingya. The fact that he does the opposite alerts us to a more intolerant form of Buddhism becoming popular within Myanmar.” (New Mandala)
The Pope’s relief fund was created on 6 April at the Pontifical Mission Societies, with an initial contribution of US$750,000. He asked at the time that Catholic churches around the world contribute as well. “In her task of evangelization, the Church is often on the front line of major threats to human well-being,” noted Cardinal Lois Antonio Tagle, prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. “The Holy Father is calling upon the Church’s vast network to face the challenges ahead.” (UCA News)
The COVID-19 outbreak began in China in late 2019 and, as of this writing on 21 April, has infected 2,477,233 people around the world, with 170,147 deaths. In China, it infected more than 80,000 and killed more than 4,000 people—recently revised by Chinese government officials from the previous official figure of some 3,000—before strict travel restrictions in late January 2020 helped slow its spread. The United States has become nation with the greatest number of confirmed cases and deaths in the world, with some 787,370 known cases and more than 42,000 deaths.
As of today, Myanmar has 117 confirmed cases and five deaths, according to government data. The first reported death occurred on 31 March. On 16 April, the government implemented social distancing measures, including bans on gatherings of more than five people as case numbers began to grow rapidly.
Myanmar is a predominantly Buddhist country. According to a 2014 census, approximately 88 per cent of the population identify as Buddhists, most of whom follow the Theravada tradition. Christians make up 6.2 per cent of the population, Muslims account for 4.2 per cent, and other religions account for less than 2 per cent. Temporary monastic ordination is common among male Buddhists in the country, who often spend a short period as novices during their childhood and then return to the monkhood later in life.
Myanmar’s top Monk donates to Pope’s Covid-19 fund (Herald Malaysia Online)
Buddhists Go to Battle: When Nationalism Overrides Pacifism (The New York Times)
Sitagu Sayadaw and justifiable evils in Buddhism (New Mandala)
Myanmar’s top monk donates to pope’s Covid-19 fund (UCA News)