The Irrawaddy

Analysis: Army Plays Spoiler to Religious Reform

MUDON, Mon State — At a recent interfaith event in Yangon, Religious Affairs and Culture Minister U Aung Ko told Myanmar Muslim Media cryptically that he was facing challenges that were visible and those that were not. He did not say what any of them were.

U Aung Ko, a former army general and member of the previous government, has been working on improving Myanmar’s religious environment amid international pressure over the country’s treatment of its Muslim minority. At the event, the minister said he had been able to carry out some reforms, but not others.

U Aung Ko has tried to take action against U Wirathu, a leading member of Ma Ba Tha, an extremist Buddhist monk group accused of hate speech against Muslims. Though the courts have failed to take action on any of his cases against the incendiary monk, U Wirathu has been relatively quiet of late.

And in February, a small group of young nationalists showed up at a court hearing in Yangon for the alleged conspirators in the murder of prominent Muslim lawyer U Ko Ni wearing T-shirts that read “Eat well.” In Burmese, the phrase is used to tell someone to enjoy a hearty last meal, implying that death is imminent.

A court ordered their arrest, but the police have yet to take action and the young men remain free. When The Irrawaddy inquired as to why the police did not take action, it learned that the Home Affairs Ministry never actually issued the order to arrest them.

The army controls the Home Affairs Ministry, along with the Ministry of Defense and Border Affairs, and the Supreme Court chief justice is another former general.

Under current laws and procedures, the courts and the army hold the power to decide who gets arrested and prosecuted. If and when the Home Affairs Ministry gives the order, the police take action.

Meanwhile, one of the main suspects in U Ko Ni’s assassination, former army officer Aung Win Khaing, remains at large nearly a year and a half after the shooting. Many people wonder if he has magic powers to have evaded capture for so long.

Some at the Ministry of Religious Affairs dislike U Aung Ko and support the army, often making it hard for him to make decisions or take action, according to sources in the ministry.

The minister was appointed to the post by State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and is close to U Shwe Mann, the ex-general and USDP leader now allied with the ruling NLD.

Anti-Muslim sentiment in Myanmar was allowed to spread during the previous government under President U Thein Sein, when Ma Ba Tha enjoyed free rein.

Since taking power in early 2016, however, the NLD-led government has banned Ma Ba Tha and put a dozen nationalists behind bars for protesting either against the ban or against the US for condemning the army’s actions against Rohingya Muslims, raising tensions with the group’s former members.

Many nationalists, including some monks, still support the army more than the NLD but have toned down their actions. They were strongly opposed to recent legal amendments placing new restrictions on protests and were joined by the army, whose representatives in Parliament spoke out against the changes, labeling them undemocratic.

The amendments, which ultimately passed, could make nationalist protests against the government rarer still.

At the recent interfaith event in Yangon, U Aung Ko said his ministry was working on amending and updating other laws to fit the times and bolster religious harmony.

“There are two issues we need to solve in our country to be able to develop our country,” he said. “One is the ethnic issue; we need to negotiate and make peace with ethnic armed groups. Second, we need to have harmony among religious groups; If we don’t, our country will not have peace and development.”