RANGOON — In what it has called an assault on press freedom, Burmese news agency Myanmar Cable News has publicly condemned the Myanmar Patriotic Monks Union, one of several hardline Buddhist nationalist groups in Burma, for allegedly obstructing and intimidating one of its junior reporters.
The reporter was covering a meeting between the monk’s union and the management of the luxury Sedona Hotel in Rangoon. According to the news agency’s statement issued on Monday, members of the monk’s union stopped the reporter from filming the meeting, and attempted to delete the footage taken, even though the news agency had obtained permission from the hotel to film the meeting.
The meeting was held in response to a recent controversy, after photographs were circulated on social media last week of a porter at the hotel receiving guests, and carrying their baggage, while dressed in a supposed royal costume from the Bagan era.
The Bagan Kingdom was founded by King Anawratha in Burma’s central dry zone and flourished between the 11th and 13th centuries.
The photographs prompted outrage from some Burmese Buddhist conservatives, which has been channeled by the Myanmar Patriotic Monk’s Union, who complained directly to the hotel.
Burma’s most prominent Buddhist nationalist group, the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion (known popularly by the Burmese-language acronym “Ma Ba Tha”), which is led by monks, issued a statement on Friday. The statement denounced it as an insult to the “dignity of the country” that a hotel porter, who occupies one of the most menial positions within the hierarchy of a luxury hotel, should be dressed in the costume of Burma’s “ancient heroes.”
The news agency’s statement was also addressed to the office of State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, the President’s Office, the Ministry of Culture and Religious Affairs, the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee (which regulates Burma’s monkhood), and the Press Council. The statement condemned the behavior of the Patriotic Monks Union as an assault on press freedom, and demanded that action be taken against them.
Sensitivities over Burmese Buddhist identity have sharpened in recent years, alongside a rapid expansion of both conventional and social media—the latter aided by a dramatic rollout of internet connectivity, linked primarily to the mobile phone network, across the previously isolated country. Much of the Buddhist nationalist rhetoric since 2012 has focused on stigmatizing Muslims as an existential threat to Buddhism in Burma.
However, this is the first time that Buddhist nationalist outrage has been directed at a seemingly secular subject: the attire of medieval Burmese royalty.
In 2014, New Zealand national Philip Blackwood was arrested and later imprisoned for his alleged role in posting an image of the Buddha wearing headphones on a Facebook page promoting a cheap drinks night at the Rangoon bar he was managing. He was released as part of an amnesty for 102 prisoners announced by outgoing President Thein Sein in January, after a year spent in Rangoon’s Insein prison.
In June 2015, National League for Democracy (NLD) information officer Htin Lin Oo was handed a prison sentence for “outraging” and “wounding” religious feelings (in accordance with provisions of Burma’s colonial-era Penal Code) after delivering a public speech criticizing Buddhist ultra-nationalist groups in October 2014.