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Why Is the US Ambassador to Burma Paying 'Respects' to an Islamophobic Buddhist Monk?

Tauseef Akbar
April 27, 2016

Promoted by American media as “a new breed of monk,” Sitagu Sayadaw celebrates extremist “race and religion” laws against ethnic minorities.

On April 8, the US embassy in Rangoon, Burma posted several photos to its Facebook page of US ambassador-designate Scot Marciel’s visit to the monk Sitagu Sayadaw. The purpose of the visit was “to pay his respects ahead of the Thingyan holiday.” We are told that Marciel “very much enjoyed speaking to the Sayadaw about the diversity of faiths in Myanmar and this country’s rich cultural history.”

Sitagu is one of the most popular - if not the most popular - Buddhist monk in Burma. A Wall Street Journal article that profiled Sitagu in 2008 noted that he is one of a new generation of monks that has risen to prominence in Burma in recent years: "Mr. Sitagu Sayadaw represents a new breed of monk who eschews traditional asceticism in favor of tactics more familiar to televangelism. Wherever he goes, a camera crew follows, recording material for the videos of him that are available on the street in major cities." Sitagu has branded himself before the outside world as a proponent of tolerance, a humble monk working for peace, and who is open to all religions. He attends interfaith friendship conferences where he makes feel-good statements that Christians, Muslims, Buddhists are “all the same.”

However, the benign and benevolent image projected by Sitagu conceals a racist and anti-democratic core that is barely hidden under the surface of his flowery, kumbaya rhetoric. Sitagu is a dyed-in-the-wool Buddhist nationalist. The Myanmar Times reports that he is “a senior member” of the extremist MaBaTha, holding the position of “vice-chair” in the organization.

His political and theological stances adhere more closely with the group’s ideology than the ideals of pluralistic democracy. Sitagu is in favor of making Buddhism the national religion of Burma, a demand he made while speaking at MaBaTha's massive rally celebrating the passage of the discriminatory “race and religion laws” last year. The laws have been roundly condemned by human rights organizations and experts in international law. A report by Georgetown’s Institute for Women, Security and Peace described them as “blatantly discriminatory” and “egregious violations of Burma’s obligations under International law and norms.”

Sitagu’s patronage of the MaBaTha isn’t limited to speeches at their rallies, he is an open ally of the Islamophobic monk, Wirathu, famously characterized by TIME as the “Buddhist Bin Laden.” At the rally, Sitagu defended the laws, saying that “These laws will not harm other religions and races.” He went on to claim that MaBaTha, “will also not get involved in politics for any religion, races, parties or conflicts. It is only to establish the interfaith laws.” This is a blatant lie, since the discriminatory and racist nature of the laws are obvious to any observer, as is the MaBaTha’s involvement in politics; Wirathu and the MaBaTha actively campaigned against the NLD, calling on “real” Buddhists to vote for the military-backed USDP, and not a party that “supports Islam.”

Sitagu "monk" with anti-Muslim Wirathu and anti-Christian Myaing Gyi Ngu "monks"

As disconcerting as his alignment with MaBaTha is what he preaches about Rohingya Muslims who are currently facing what leading Burmese scholar Maung Zarni and Alice Crowley have concluded is a “slow-burning genocide.” These findings have also been followed up by studies by Yale Law School, Queen Mary’s State Crime Initiative and conferences at Harvard and the London School of Economics that have come to similar conclusions.

In his description of non-Bama ethnicities as “guest” citizens and Bama as “hosts,” Sitagu is promoting and echoing the racist terminology of genocidal dictator General Ne Win. Sitagu not only denies the existence of the Rohingya, he propagates fear and hate of them as dangerous fifth-columnists and separatists. He is on the record denying that they suffered pogroms in 2012 at the hands of extremist Rakhine Buddhists, going so far as to say “they burned their houses by themselves as if it was done by Burmese Buddhists.”

Shifting blame for violence onto the victims is a common tactic among apologists for crimes against humanity. They seek to shield their community or group from the unpalatable truth, since it exposes their complicity in fomenting atrocities, even as they claim to be the paragons of virtue.

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), despite having its own sordid relationship to Islamophobia, responded directly to denials of Rohingya persecution, like that expressed by Sitagu, saying "No impartial observers question reports of systematic, large-scale & egregious abuses of human rights of this (Rohingya) community." (Ironically, one of those involved in the visit was Zuhdi Jasser, a Muslim-American Republican Party activist who supports blanket spying on Muslims, the Iraq War, and the Patriot Act).

In light of all this, why is the US embassy in Rangoon and its ambassador-designate meeting with a prominent MaBaTha monk whose horrid beliefs fit neatly into the Islamophobic narratives that continue to dehumanize the Rohingya? Of course some of the possible answers to these questions can be found in the Obama administration strategy of “pivoting toward Asia.” The goal of this policy is to challenge and compete against China for valuable resources in its own backyard and get a piece of the emerging neo-liberal economy of Burma, slated to have the world’s fastest growing economy this year. It is unfathomable that the US embassy is unaware of Sitagu’s views and role within the hate-mongering MaBaTha. And yet the leader of an organization that is actively involved in persecuting an ethnic minority and lobbying for the passage of laws that make religious discrimination official policy earned the ambassador’s “respects,” exposing the hollowness of US claims to upholding human rights in the region.

Tauseef Akbar is a Chicago-based human rights advocate, writer and researcher. Currently, he is web content director at the Burma Task Force USA.

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