Opposition Parties, Nationalist Group Denounce Ministry’s Defense of Journalist

By Kyaw Phyo Tha & San Yamin Aung 11 April 2017

RANGOON — Burma’s opposition parties and a nationalist Buddhist group denounced the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture for saying that a Myanmar Now journalist who has been sued for criticizing Burmese nationalist monk U Wirathu has not contravened any law.

The ministry letter was issued last week in response to a request by the journalist Ko Swe Win for a summary of its views on the lawsuits against him, filed under Article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law—in Mandalay—and Article 295(a) of Burma’s penal code—in Rangoon. Both are charges of defamation.

The response states that the chief editor of Myanmar Now’s criticism was “based on facts” and could therefore not be classified as defamation, and did not insult the Buddhist religion.

On Saturday, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and eight other political parties released a statement warning that the ministry’s response could somehow encourage more people to insult Buddhism, potentially leading to conflict that would undermine the country’s stability.

The statement also said the ministry’s comments intervened with the judiciary process of the cases.

“We condemn the ministry’s letter, and announce that the ministry will be responsible for any outbreak of conflict [related to the letter],” said the statement of condemnation.

The National League for Democracy (NLD) heavily defeated all nine parties responsible for the statement in the 2015 general election.

One of the statement’s signatories, ultranationalist Nay Myo Wai, the chairman of the Peace and Diversity Party, was detained last year for allegedly defaming the country’s top leaders on social media.

Burma’s largest nationalist group the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, known by the Burmese acronym Ma Ba Tha, also attacked the ministry’s letter.

In a statement on Monday, the group accused the ministry of taking sides with the journalist, adding that the ministry’s job was to support Buddhism and not those who want to damage the religion.

“We totally reject the ministry’s response, and the ministry, the minister and the current government are responsible for any outbreak of unnecessary consequences relating to the letter,” the statement said.

One of the leading members of Ma Ba Tha, Ashin Sopaka, told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday that the association plans no further actions as “there are plans by many other people and nationalist groups who are not happy with Ko Swe Win’s actions.”

“So we won’t need to do any more,” he said. “Even ordinary Buddhists feel insulted by his actions, not to mention monks like us.”

The ministry’s director U Aung San Win told The Irrawaddy the ministry’s stance remained the same as the follow-up statement they released on April 6 after the letter.

The statement stood by the ministry’s comments and denied it intervened in the judiciary process of the cases.