NAYPYITAW — A lack of consensus in society about the political role of Buddhist monks is making it difficult for the government to act as certain monks become ever more reckless in their behavior, in defiance of the Buddhist Order’s code of conduct, said Union Minister for Religious Affairs and Culture Thura U Aung Ko.
The government still can’t take action against monks because of the differing views about Buddhist monks and nationalism among the various stakeholders in the country and in society at large, the minister told reporters in Naypyitaw on Monday.
“Some monks have taken advantage of this and become more reckless. But the game is not yet over. We’ve recorded their actions,” said the minister.
The minister last week urged the nation’s highest religious authority, the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee (known by its Burmese acronym, Ma Ha Na) to take action against monks who disgrace Buddhism through their activities or speech, during the committee’s annual meeting.
Ma Ha Na oversees violations of the traditional regulatory framework of Theravada Buddhist monks, while the government can use its executive power to intervene if monks’ defiance goes beyond the ability of Ma Ha Na to control it, said the minister.
There must be unity between the government, the people and Myanmar’s military (known as the Tatmadaw) before legal action can be taken against badly behaved monks, said the minister.
“Disunity will not last forever. The time of unity will come for certain. This will be decided by the people,” said the minister.
Nationalist monks forced the cancellation of a press conference on Sunday at which a monk had planned to call on religious and civil authorities to prevent the firebrand monk U Wirathu from spreading hate speech.
The event planned by Buddhist monk Ashin Issariya of Karen State’s Hpa-an Township at the Myanmar Journalist Network (MJN) was called off after dozens of monks and laymen who support U Wirathu arrived and took seats at the venue an hour before the scheduled start of the press conference.
Last year, Ma Ha Na banned ultranationalist monk U Wirathu from preaching for one year for spreading hate speech, which it said could lead to religious conflict. The ban expires next month.
With the ban still in effect, U Wirathu shared video files on social media in which he claimed to be the mentor of Kyi Lin, the accused assassin of prominent Muslim lawyer U Ko Ni. To support killing is against Buddhist teaching, Ashin Issariya said.
“People want to know why U Wirathu hasn’t been arrested while U Parmaukkha was. If everybody is not equal in front of the law, there will never be rule of law in our country,” he added.
Ultra-nationalist monk U Parmaukkha was arrested in November and sentenced last week to three months in prison for inciting public unrest, for leading an anti-Rohingya protest outside the U.S. Embassy in Yangon in April 2016.
Nationalist writer Maung Thway Chun said the Buddhist monks who forced the cancellation of the press conference do not belong to the Association for Protection of Race and Religion (known by its Burmese acronym Ma Ba Tha), but to the Patriotic Monks Union. However, he did not deny Ma Ba Tha’s leading role in forcing the cancellation of the press conference.
“The E.U., U.S. and OIC [Organization of Islamic Cooperation] all loathe Ma Ba Tha. Their [the National League for Democracy-led government’s] rival is the USDP [Union Solidarity and Development Party]. Ma Ba Tha won’t grab power. Ma Ba Tha is not a political party. It has no interest at all in politics. I don’t understand why the government targets Ma Ba Tha,” he said.
Ma Ba Tha was born out of the 969 Movement — a nationalist campaign that called for the boycott of Muslim-owned businesses — in 2012. In 2013, 969 members rebranded the group as the Association for Protection of Race and Religion, better known by its Burmese acronym Ma Ba Tha.
After Ma Ha Na banned the group on May 23, 2017, the association rebranded itself as the Buddha Dhamma Charity Foundation.
“We have records [of conduct-violating monks]. And there have been louder calls by people [to take action against them]. But as I have said, we have to consider the underlying factors. It could become a nationalist issue [if we take action],” said Minister Thura U Aung Ko.
“There may be challenges. And there are causes for concern for Buddhism [in Myanmar]. And this issue is also connected with politics.”