RANGOON — Columnist and National League for Democracy member Htin Lin Oo has been subjected to a lawsuit for contravening the Burmese Penal Code’s statutes on religious offence, after a speech last month provoked outrage from Buddhist groups.
An officer from the Department of Immigration in Sagaing Division’s Chaung-U Township has filed a lawsuit against Htin Lin Oo under Article 295a, which prohibits “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings”, and Article 298, which proscribes “uttering words […] with deliberate intent to wound religious feelings”. Both charges are punishable by fines or imprisonment of up to two years for the former and one year for the latter.
“The Township Sangha Nayaka [Buddhist clergy] requested for me to sue him, since his speech disgraced their religion,” said Tun Khaing, the officer who filed the charge on Nov. 20.
Htin Lin Oo told The Irrawaddy on Monday that he had received news that the case was proceeding but had yet to receive a court summons.
“I didn’t speak to disgrace [Buddhism]. Those who listen the original full video of my speech will know whether I disgraced it or not,” he said.
The prominent author gave a two-hour speech to over 500 people at a literary event in Sagaing Division’s Chaung-U Township on Oct. 23, during which he criticized the use of Buddhism as fig leaf for prejudice and discrimination.
“Buddha is not Burmese, not Shan and not Karen—so if you want to be an extreme nationalist and if you love to maintain your race that much, don’t believe in Buddhism,” he said at the time.
After a 10-minute excerpt of the speech was widely shared on social media, the Patriotic Buddhist Monks Union denounced his speech in a statement last month.
“If they accuse me of insulting the religion…I will also defend that,” Htin Lin Oo said. “I didn’t intend to target monks, I only intended to discuss those who don’t obey the Buddha’s words and do whatever they want. Everyone already knows that but they just ignore it.”
He added that the Buddha instructed his followers to have mercy on all beings, and those who argue that some should be shown kindness to the exclusion of others do not live up to Buddhism’s precepts.
“There are both good people and bad people in all religions,” he said. “We can’t insult other religions for having some bad people and also say that others can’t insult Buddhism for having some bad people. I believe I did my duty.”
After the NLD investigated Htin Lin Oo’s speech, he was relieved of his position as an information officer for the party.
U Wirathu, a Mandalay-based monk and prominent member of the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, said that his organization had planned to sue the author before action was taken by Tun Khaing.
“We planned to sue him,” U Wirathu said. “But since the Chaung-U Township’s Immigration Department did it first, we won’t sue him again.”
He added that the lawsuit was an appropriate sanction against Htin Lin Oo in accordance with existing criminal statutes.
“I prefer taking legal action to warn him not to disgrace [Buddhism] again in the future,” he said.