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A New Breed of Monk Rises in Myanmar

The Wall Street Journal, August 19, 2008

SAGAING, Myanmar -- Sitagu Sayadaw sits on a raised platform, three visitors kneeling below him, and explains the source of his power as a Buddhist monk. "I don't have any guns but I have very strong weapons: love, kindness and compassion," he says, as two novice monks massage his feet.

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Sitagu Sayadaw, one of Myanmar's top monks, sits at his campus in Sagaing.

He also possesses two traits that have propelled him to the equivalent of monastic superstardom in this Buddhist but military-run country: a knack for self-promotion and a keen sense of self-preservation.

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. He travels widely in Asia, the U.S. and Europe to lecture and raise funds and is building a multimillion-dollar convention center here along the Irrawaddy River.

Yet his teachings and actions are carefully calibrated so he can co-exist with the junta that has ruled Myanmar since 1962. Though he is, on occasion, a fierce government critic, he counts military top brass among his followers. Last year, the wife of Senior General Than Shwe, the country's supreme leader, paid homage to him at his monastery here.

So when Cyclone Nargis struck in early May, leaving at least 138,000 dead or missing, Mr. Sitagu Sayadaw was an obvious and willing choice for foreign donors looking for a way past the government's resistance to outside aid.

As his own monks spread out to help victims, he agreed to distribute what he says is almost $1 million in foreign donations so far to areas where the military kept foreigners out. Among the donors: British doctors, the King of Thailand and -- most sensitively -- the Catholic Church, which feared the dangers of acting alone because of the junta's decades-long persecution of Christians.

"For me, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, it's all the same," the rotund 71-year-old says in an interview at his Sitagu International Buddhist Academy.

The money went toward fixing up seven hospitals badly damaged by the cyclone -- at a cost of $50,000 each -- and repairing schools, among other projects. Those efforts have given Mr. Sitagu Sayadaw's profile and popularity yet another boost. "If he ran in an election today, he would win," says Win Min, a Burmese academic based at Payap University in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Mr. Sitagu Sayadaw was born in 1937 in a small town in central Myanmar, then known as Burma. At age seven, he entered the local monastery to study, and by 20 years old became a Buddhist monk, taking the formal name Ashin Nanissara. He later studied Pali scripture, in which he is considered an expert, at Mandalay University.

At first, Mr. Sitagu Sayadaw followed the usual path for Burmese monks: He spent three years in the 1970s meditating in a secluded forest. But soon after setting up his own monastery in Sagaing in 1979, he began to do major social projects, like building a water-supply system for the town. In 1987, he started construction of a 100-bed hospital and offered low-cost medicine for poor people.

He became politically active in 1988, taking part in large-scale pro-democracy demonstrations. In a speech, he criticized the government of Ne Win, the former dictator. In the ensuing crackdown, in which 3,000 people were killed by the military, Mr. Sitagu Sayadaw fled to Nashville, Tenn., where he studied world religions, says Nyo Ohn Myint, a U.S.-based Myanmar opposition activist who met him during that period.

Returning to Myanmar during a political thaw in the mid-1990s, Mr. Sitagu Sayadaw set up his academy in Sagaing -- a historic Buddhist town that is home to about 10,000 monks. He also opened a monastery in Austin, Texas, with the help of American friends.

This time around, Mr. Sitagu Sayadaw tried to cultivate government contacts to help promote his education and health projects. He became close to Maung Aye, the country's No. 2-ranking general, say people who know the monk. "Pro-democracy groups claimed he was a puppet of the regime," Mr. Nyo Ohn Myint says.

Still, Mr. Sitagu Sayadaw's popularity began to grow, aided by his social work and popular videotaped sermons. "This is the age of the charismatic monk," says one U.S. student who has studied Buddhism in Myanmar. "He's reaching people he couldn't reach before."

When new pro-democracy protests, led by Buddhist monks, erupted last fall, Mr. Sitagu Sayadaw acted very differently this time around. He locked the gates of his monastery and forbade monks to take part in the protests, fearing reprisals, say a number of people who know him.

But he also criticized the government in speeches and refused a government request for him to calm the Burmese people, who were angry about rising food and fuel prices.

When the cyclone crashed ashore in May, Mr. Sitagu Sayadaw and some of his 100 monastic students collected rice and zinc roof sheets and traveled by car or boat to the worst-hit areas.

As news of the devastation spread, the Catholic Church started looking for a way to disburse some of the tens of thousands of dollars donated by Catholic aid groups and churchgoers in Europe and the U.S.

But Myanmar's military government is very suspicious of the church. Many Burmese Christians -- converted by American missionaries in the 19th century -- are from minority ethnic groups that the government accuses of fomenting separatist movements. Christians complain of frequent abuse and discrimination. In the 1960s, the government forced the nation's Catholic missionary schools to close.

The Catholic Church reached Mr. Sitagu Sayadaw through a Burmese Buddhist man who works with a Catholic-run organization in Thailand. Mr. Sitagu Sayadaw flew to Bangkok and met with the archbishop of Thailand, where he agreed to be a conduit for their aid.

"This was an effective way of being able to avoid too much visibility," says Ben Mendoza, who works with the Catholic Office for Emergency Relief and Refugees in Bangkok.

The Church chose Sister Flora, a nun from the Yangon-based Sisters of St. Joseph of the Apparition who is originally from the Irrawaddy River delta, to liaise with Mr. Sitagu Sayadaw. Sister Flora says she remembers the military officers in the delta -- who were stopping many private Buddhist-organized aid convoys -- bowing at Mr. Sitagu Sayadaw's feet in a sign of respect during a recent tour to survey damage.

Mr. Sitagu Sayadaw's "followers are very famous people," says Sister Ann Shwe, another nun involved in the relief effort. "They usually have a good relationship with the government."

As the relief work winds down, Mr. Sitagu Sayadaw has started talking of his next project. He is interested in building a nationwide network of Sitagu-branded schools and colleges. And he's eager for more outside help.

"Hey Mr. England," he asked a foreigner during a recent visit to Sagaing. "Can you get me £1 million?"

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