In this week’s “Dateline Irrawaddy” show—first aired on the Democratic Voice of Burma—panelists discuss President Thein Sein’s decision to fire Religious Affairs Minister U Hsan Hsint, who has also been detained and charged with corruption.
Kyaw Zwa Moe: This week we are going to discuss the firing and detention of Religious Affairs Minister U Hsan Hsint, after government forces raided the Mahasantisukha Monastery and arrested five resident monks, and as there has still been no transparent trial. There might be corruption, as well as political and economic interests, implicated in the case. We are going to discuss this with our invited guests, Dr. Yan Myo Thein, a regular political commentator, and Ko Sithu Aung Myint, a political and social commentator. And I am Kyaw Zwa Moe, editor of the English edition of The Irrawaddy magazine.
Ko Sithu Aung Myint, the recent raid is the first time the government has used force like this since the 2007 Saffron Revolution. The entire country is appalled by the incident. There might be some reasons behind the case that people don’t know. Do you have any idea what the root causes might be?
Sithu Aung Myint: The Venerable Penang Sayadaw initiated the construction of the monastery, and it was donated to him afterward. But then he left the country to continue his mission abroad, as he had been based at a monastery on the island of Penang way before 2007. General Khin Nyunt then transferred the administration of the monastery to the state Buddhist clergy, or Sangha, known as Maha Nayaka. In principal, the monastery is still owned by Penang Sayadaw, but the state clergy was managing it in his stead while he was away. Nevertheless, the state clergy refused to return the monastery when Penang Sayadaw came back as the political situation in the country improved. The state clergy, however, agreed to accept Penang Sayadaw as a guest if he wanted to stay at the monastery. When Penang Sayadaw was away for his mission, the raid went ahead in accordance with a decision by the 47-member supreme council of the state clergy, and implemented by the state clergy of Yangon Division. The state clergy of Yangon Division sent about 10 to 20 monks from each monastery to oversee the operation, and they were aided by the police. The Yangon Division government granted permission to conduct the operation. The whole thing turned out to be very ugly, and there were objections from both the local and international community. The government responded by taking action against U Hsan Hsint, who was the incumbent religious affairs minister at the time. We don’t know what role U Hsan Hsint played in that operation, we only know what the government has explained to us.
KZM: We already know that much. Hsan Hsint, as the religious affairs minister, along with the state clergy and the police, were involved in the raid. Presidential spokesperson and Deputy Minister of Information U Ye Htut later said the government had no right to intervene in the affairs of monks and that the matter was solely up to the state clergy’s decision. However, U Hsan Hsint was removed from his position within a few days and the five monks who were detained were released on bail. These are totally inconsistent. I believe there is disagreement, even within the government. What’s your take?
SAM: When they explained the inconsistencies later, they said their policy was to implement the decision of the state clergy, but the president ordered a solution to the matter in a harmonious way. But the president’s instructions were not followed, and the government took action in response. Since we haven’t heard U Hsan Hsint’s side of the story, we can’t tell whether this is true or not.
KZM: The government does not hold public hearings. The Ministry of Home Affairs just said today that they have no plan to release more information. Ko Yan Myo Thein, do you think there are political motives at play?
Yan Myo Thein: I think the national government is mainly responsible for the incident. U Hsan Hsint and Presidential Advisor on Religious Affairs U Ant Maung are now out of the loop, although they were exposed to the public. I believe the national government systematically designed the whole thing. They may have political advantages to gain from the plot. As the nationwide signature campaign led by the National League for Democracy and other ethnic political parties to change Article 436 of the Constitution is gaining momentum, they devised this plot to counterbalance the movement. We don’t see a greater effect coming from the plot yet, but I think they did this to counter the movements of the NLD and other political parties.
KZM: This kind of political trick has been used over the past two decades under the military regime. Is the case that simple? We need to question this because there are inconsistencies. According to Ko Yan Myo Thein, U Hsan Hsint looks like a scapegoat. What do you think, Ko Sithu Aung Myint?
SAM: I don’t see it like that. U Thein Sein has handled problems in the government moderately during his three years of administration. He has never taken action so hastily before. If we take that into consideration, this is a really scary punishment. A cabinet minister was arrested and sent to prison right away. And his family members were put under house arrest, and their facilities that were provided by the government have been confiscated, according to the latest news. It is very clear that they are determined to investigate the case of U Hsan Hsint thoroughly and to punish him. Before the fall of U Khin Nyunt, General Tun Kyi and some others faced a similar fate. I think this is a manifestation of their internal conflicts.
KZM: The raid would be the immediate reason. There can still be many more. In the case of U Khin Nyunt, although internal conflicts did play a role, he was arrested and charged with corruption. We can see the same pattern in U Hsan Hsint’s case. The charges against him are insubordination, breaching the Constitution, and corruption. Nonetheless, many retired generals and current members of government are also accused of corruption. What details have the authorities shared?
SAM: We haven’t gotten the details yet. According to the information they released just after the arrest, the special bureau of investigation has been following U Hsan Hsint and they found that U Hsan Hsint donated 10 million kyats (US$10,000) to a pagoda out of the ministry’s budget. Three million kyats were deposited back into the ministry’s account, while the remaining 7 million were not reported. We don’t know when it was deposited either, at that time or later. If we just look at the matter with common sense, all the ex-generals are millionaires in dollars. U Hsan Hsint himself has properties in Kabar Aye Villa, which is one of the most famous neighborhoods, among many other assets, and there are some assets owned by his son. Therefore, the amount of 10 million kyats is an absurd amount to implicate him with corruption. We can’t substantiate the claim that he is being punished for corruption.
KZM: Like Ko Yan Myo Thein said, if there are political interests involved, what do U Thein Sein and his government stand to gain?
YMT: I don’t think this is a manifestation of their internal conflicts, like Ko Sithu Aung Myint said. This feels like watching a play, where anyone in it can turn either into the villain or the protagonist.
KZM: So U Hsan Hsint is now in the role of villain?
YMT: U Hsan Hsint is now the villain, but the rest are continuing their roles, and the people are continuing to watch the play. I think the government’s way of handling Mahasantisukha Monastery’s affairs did not yield the results they wanted. That’s why they are making U Hsan Hsint into a villain and having him take responsibility by himself. The corruption charges are a pretext to remove him. But the president and the government are mainly responsible for it. U Hsan Hsint’s case should be heard in a public trial, as the Constitution does allow for such trials. They at least need to let the media cover the trial and let the defense of U Hsan Hsint be known to the people. If not, I believe there are many hidden agendas behind the case.
KZM: They are charging U Hsan Hsint with corruption, but the funny thing is that the candidate proposed by the president to replace him as a new religious affairs minister, U Soe Win, who currently holds the deputy minister position in the same ministry, is corrupt too, according to media coverage. An MP from the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), U Hla Swe, also mentioned that U Soe Win is corrupt to the bone. So as the government charges U Hsan Hsint with corruption, his replacement is no less corrupt. What more do you know about the case?
SAM: My take is that they planned that he would not be released easily. That’s why they charged him with money-related crimes. Since the money is state owned, he will face a long imprisonment. I don’t think his case is related to corruption, because if they scrutinize anyone in the government, nobody will be free of corruption. This is my view only.
YMT: For me, I haven’t noticed any major operation against corruption during the three-year administration of U Thein Sein. The anti-corruption law is already enacted but there may be delays in issuing the regulations. However, there are many sections under the Penal Code that can be used to charge civil servants. We still don’t see them pursuing the case against U Hsan Hsint. So I agree with Ko Sithu Aung Myint that corruption charges against U Hsan Hsint are just an excuse.
KZM: Corruption can be a future topic for us. Thank you, Ko Sithu Aung Myint and Dr. Yan Myo Thein, for joining us. We can roughly conclude that an open public trial is needed to make sure people know clearly the truth behind the removal of U Hsan Hsint and related episodes, not the government’s drama.