Are the Govt and Military at Odds over Buddhist Nationalists?

By The Irrawaddy 22 June 2019

Kyaw Kha: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week, we’ll discuss the recent statement issued by the Buddha Dhamma Prahita Foundation, formerly known as Ma Ba Tha. I’m The Irrawaddy’s chief reporter Kyaw Kha and I’m joined by legal adviser U Khin Maung Myint and policymaker Ko Myat Kyaw of the Anti-False Buddhist Doctrine Group.

At its annual meeting on Monday, the Buddha Dhamma Prahita Foundation released a statement. The statement called for not voting for the current government and rejecting and removing anyone and any activity deemed to be harmful to “the race and religion”. What is your view of this, U Khin Maung Myint?

Khin Maung Myint: From a legal point of view, the organization has been banned by the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee, also known as Ma Ha Na, and the Religious Affairs Department—in other words, the government. It was also ordered to take down its signboards. So, from a legal point of view, it is an illegal organization. So, it can’t make demands according to the law. Only legitimate organizations can make demands in line with the law. The foundation, in defiance of the order to dissolve, held meetings and pressed demands. In our view, those demands do not have legitimacy. Their demands—the call for not voting for the [current] government and opposing it—deviate from the original objective of the foundation. It is the very definition of sedition. It is in fact committing a crime as a group, from a legal point of view. If more than five members of an illegitimate organization gather, it is an unlawful assembly according to Article 141 of the Penal Code. If they continue to gather in the knowledge that their assembly is illegal, they further violate Article 142 of the Penal Code. If convicted, they may face up to six months in prison. The law applies to any illegal gathering whether they are monks or laypersons. No association, whether religious or social, is allowed to summon a meeting and call for a rejection of the current government. Voting is about party issues, and their call for not voting for a particular party is not a problem. They have the right to talk about voting; it is in line with the law, and they can persuade and rally individuals to vote for or against a party. But the call to reject the government by any means possible, that sounds close to a threat of armed revolt—it is openly seditious.

KK: Ko Myat Kyaw, in its statement the foundation called on the public not to vote for the current government and to reject and remove it. Isn’t it taking advantage of religion to engage in politics? The current government was elected by the people. So, doesn’t their demand go against the people?

Myat Kyaw: We will be able to achieve a federal Union when people of all races and religions are united. To prevent us from building a federal Union, they will sow discord between religions and races, and spread hatred and finally oppose the government. The current government was elected by the people. So, we view it as a revolt against the government which has a mandate from the people. I use the word “revolt” because of the statement of the Buddha Dhamma Prahita Foundation, formerly known as Ma Ba Tha. What should be done in case of a revolt? There are many people, like the Supreme Court chief justice, who have more legal knowledge than me. There are contradictions in the country. The government’s Religious Affairs Department said Ma Ba Tha is an illegal organization. The military commander of Yangon Region appointed by the army chief donated 30 million kyats [nearly US$20,000] to the organization. So, contradictions exist in the country. We belong to democratic forces and we have to give our full support to the government, to which the people have given a mandate. We have to try to stop people who pose an obstacle to building the country’s future.   

KK: So, does their action amount to seeking political gain by taking advantage of religion?

MK: That’s exactly what they are doing. They are clearly breaching the Constitution, which they say they respect and vow to protect and uphold. It’s not a matter of suspecting that they are taking advantage of religion—they are. They oppose the government by discouraging people from voting for it. They saying they would oppose the government by any means possible. Such an organization that blatantly violates the law as a group is a virus infecting the country.

KK: Members of the public have criticized the Yangon Command of the Tatmadaw [Myanmar’s military] for [apparently] donating 30 million kyats to the foundation, the successor of the Ma Ba Tha, which opposes the government. Should we be suspicious of this action?

KMM: The commander of Yangon Region attended the event. The regional commander is a position within the Tatmadaw, and for a commander to attend such an event, he might have to seek the approval of his superior officers. So it seems safe to say that the donation was made on behalf of the Tatmadaw. Whether it is true or not, the Tatmadaw True News Information Team has a responsibility to explain it to the people. Because the highest Buddhist authority, Ma Ha Na, has already said that the organization [the Buddha Dhamma Prahita Foundation] is illegal. The law Ma Ha Na cited in its statement was not a law adopted during the NLD government; it was the Sangha Organization Law enacted in 1990 during the time of the [military-established] State Law and Order Restoration Council. The law prohibits establishing a new sect [of Buddhism] outside of the existing nine sects. It also prohibits forming any religious organization unless approved by the Ma Ha Na. Both the Ma Ba Tha and its successor, the Buddha Dhamma Prahita Foundation, were officially banned. The ban was made publicly and legally, but the commander of Yangon Region, which is an important position in the military, attended the meeting of that organization and donated cash to it. From a legal point of view, it is against the law. If it was a cash donation contributed to the foundation’s funds, it is totally against the law. The Tatmadaw has to explain it to the people. If they don’t, lawmakers, who are the representatives of the people, must raise a question about it in the Lower House. The Defense Ministry has a responsibility to explain. If they say senior monks also attended the meeting, and the donation was made for the Sangha, we have nothing to say. The Defense Ministry and the Yangon commander must explain the purpose of the donation.

KK: The foundation, in its statement, said that U Wirathu’s criticism of the government was reasonable. And it denounced the lawsuit against him. Ko Myat Kyaw, what is your assessment of this?

MK: Everyone must have seen the video of the speech U Wirathu made in downtown Yangon. Monks are regarded as the sons of the Buddha, yet in yellow robes, he used very vulgar language that laypersons would feel embarrassed to talk about. The remarks might have been targeted at Daw Aung San Suu Kyi or someone else. Either way such remarks and behavior are not appropriate at all. Before thinking about whether the lawsuit against U Wirathu is fair or not, the Sangha should think about how [U Wirathu’s remarks and activities] reflect on the sons of the Buddha in the eyes of the international community and followers of other religions. Because of U Wirathu, the international media has published negative reports about Buddhist monks. And some have even questioned the essence of Buddhism. To put it another way, the reputation of Buddhism has been harmed. If he is provided with continued protection, the whole Sangha will be affected. If I were the government, I would expel him. He made personal attacks in public against a state leader elected by the people. If his criticisms were political or aimed at her policies, we would accept it. But he criticized the fact that she wears high heels, the way she wears her longyi, and her marriage to a foreigner. The fact that there is such a rude monk in the Buddhist clergy brings disgrace upon the entire clergy. So, if possible, I wish something harsher than a lawsuit was done, for example disrobing him as a monk. [U Wirathu’s actions] could lead to a grave misunderstanding of Buddhism among other countries and followers of other religions, as well as among Buddhist monks in our country and in other Buddhist countries, and undermine the image of Buddhism.

KK: What is your view on this, U Khin Maung Myint?

KMM: From a legal perspective, the meeting [of the Buddha Dhamma Prahita Foundation] was in fact a political move in the name of religion. The Defense Ministry and the commander-in-chief of defense services should properly explain to the Union government, including the President, and the Yangon regional government why the Tatmadaw was involved. The country will be plunged into chaos and the rule of law will only deteriorate if no action is taken against an organization that releases a statement against the [legitimacy of the] government. There are laws in place to take action against them. There are laws enacted after 1980 regarding the Sangha, about what action shall be taken against fake monks, and monks who drink alcohol. I won’t go into the details of them here, but relevant laws are in place, and I want to see appropriate action taken decisively against them in line with those laws. We have to give our full support to the current government because an attempt to ruin the government means an attempt to destroy the Union; in other words it is an attempt to destroy people’s lives and future. It is totally unacceptable to me. As an ordinary citizen as well as a legal expert, I can’t accept any unlawful act. I’d like to see the government, the Defense Ministry and the commander-in-chief of defense services make prompt, serious responses.

KK: Finally, why do you think U Wirathu still hasn’t been arrested?

KMM: I don’t accept the argument that the hideout of U Wirathu is unknown. As we all know from personal experience, the information network in our country is quite extensive. As information technology is quite advanced in this age, it is impossible that his whereabouts can’t be tracked. But as to the question of why he has not been arrested, I’d say there are two possible reasons. Firstly, the government may not feel it is prepared for the political unrest that could result from arresting U Wirathu. So, the government has not put pressure [on the police to arrest him] and is waiting. Or, the government is allowing those political events in the name of religion to take place, hoping to identify more conspirators, This is just my guess based on my personal experience. To summarize, I don’t accept their claim that his whereabouts are unknown. There are many ways to find him.

KK: Thank you for your contributions!