RANGOON — Authorities in Rangoon’s Tamwe Township charged five Buddhist monks with religious offenses on Friday after they became embroiled in a dispute with the government-backed Buddhist clergy over the ownership of a large Rangoon monastery.
The monks were reportedly disrobed and sent to Insein Prison to await their trial, which could result in a prison sentence.
“It’s true, we brought them to the court, but I don’t’ want to say any more [about this case],” Ye Myo Hein, a police officer involved in the case, said when asked whether the monks had been charged with religious offenses.
Burma’s Penal Code Article 295 to 298 carries provisions that set punishments for acts that insult religious feelings and beliefs, or disturb places of religious worship and assembly. The charges carry fines and prison terms of between one and two years.
U Pamaukkha, a monk who went to the trial at Tamwe Township Court, said, “They were charged with offending religion by the court.
“Five monks, including U Ottara, were forced to change their robes and they were sent to Insein Prison.”
The five were part of a group of seven monks and 32 laymen who were evicted from Rangoon’s Maha Thanti Thukha Buddhist monastery on Tuesday by the government-backed Buddhist clergy, the Sangha Maha Nayaka, and subsequently apprehended. The laymen and two monks were later released.
They are followers of Penang Sayadaw U Pyinnya Wuntha, an 86-year-old abbot who has been involved in a dispute with the State Sangha over the ownership of the monastery since the early 2000s. The Ministry of Religious Affairs has backed the State Sangha in the case and supported the Tuesday raid.
Burma’s former military regime built the large monastery in the late 1990s at a cost of about US$8 million and put U Pyinnya Wuntha in charge, presenting him with legal ownership documents.
But in 2002, after U Pyinnya Wuntha went on a visit abroad, the government claimed it found evidence of corruption at the monastery and it granted control over the building to the State Sangha.
Most of U Pyinnya Wuntha’s followers were forced to leave but a small group was allowed to stay; these last followers were evicted and apprehended by the State Sangha on Tuesday night.
U Pyinnya Wuntha condemned the raid in a phone call from Japan Thursday and claimed he had full ownership over the monastery.
Win Htein, who is a lawyer and a lawmaker in Rangoon Division’s legislature, said it was uncommon for authorities to charge monks under criminal law, as the clergy has its own rules and a special office to resolve disputes between monks.
He said police had failed to give prior warning of the raid, adding that it remains unclear on what grounds the five monks were being charged for offending religion. “There is a special office and a rules handbook for monks when there is a dispute. By bringing monks to a civilian court, police ignore these laws,” said Win Htein.
The open dispute between Buddhist monks and the unusual actions by authorities have fascinated Burma’s predominantly Buddhist public, which deeply revers the clergymen.
U Wirathu, the nationalist monk who is the public figurehead of the 969 movement that has been spreading anti-Islamic messages throughout Burma, has sought to publicly weigh in on the case.
He said he supported the evicted the monks. “They stayed at their own monastery. They were innocent. By putting innocent monks in prison, [the government] will get punishment from all monks in the country,” Wirathu said.