Protesters Demand Apology From Religious Affairs Minister, Release of Nationalists

By Htet Naing Zaw 20 May 2017

NAYPYIDAW — Nationalists accusing the government of neglecting Buddhism and favoring Islam listed a set of demands—starting with an apology from the religious affairs minister—at a protest in Naypyidaw on Saturday.

About 300 protesters, including nationalists and Buddhist monks from across Burma, along with roughly 2,700 of their supporters, gathered at Shwe Nantha football ground in Ottara Thiri Township to claim the Minister for Religious Affairs and Culture U Aung Ko is not doing enough for Buddhism.

The organizers expected 30,000 to attend the rally but authorities gave permission for 300 participants. As the organizers ringed off the protest of 300 with ropes, police said they would not take action.

U Tint Lwin, one of the organizers, and most others at the protest believe the religion minister must give more protection and encouragement to Buddhism.

“If actions are taken against the religious affairs minister or if the minister shows remorse and apologizes to all the Buddhist monks in the country, we won’t continue our activities. Otherwise we will continue to do what we should do,” U Tint Lwin told The Irrawaddy.

The nationalists listed other demands: they said the state Buddhist authority the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee should lift its nationwide preaching ban on ultranationalist monk U Wirathu, imposed because of his religious hate speech, which began for one year from March.

The protestors also demanded that a number of nationalists guilty or accused of crimes have the charges against them dropped, or be released from prison. These include Win Ko Ko Latt, Naung Daw Lay, Thet Myo Oo, and Nay Win Aung—hardline nationalists who were charged for a protest outside the US Embassy in Rangoon on April 28 last year against the American mission’s use of the word “Rohingya.”

The four men rejected the term Rohingya—with which the Muslim minority self-identifies—and instead refer to the group as “Bengali,” implying that they are migrants from neighboring Bangladesh.

The protesters want the release of four nationalists who were involved in a violent confrontation with Muslims in Rangoon’s Mingalar Taung Nyunt Township on May 9, when a nationalist mob stormed into the Muslim neighbourhood at midnight, claiming Muslim Rohingya were there “illegally,” although police could find none.

Three more nationalists, including two Buddhist monks, who were involved in the incident have been charged with incitement to commit violence, but are still at large.

The protesters accused the religious affairs minister of ignoring activities they believe are taking place in mosques and Islamic schools, including teachers from India and Pakistan “secretly preaching” and the teaching of the “mujahideen spirit.”

A mob of 50 Buddhist nationalists shut down two madrasas in Rangoon’s Thaketa Township in April. The group threatened journalists and reportedly attacked a videographer filming the incident.

Nationalists in the country’s capital on Friday said if the president’s office did not respond to their demands within one month, they would stage more peaceful protests.

They argued that successive regimes since the government of Prime Minister U Nu have done more to promote Buddhism than the National League for Democracy (NLD). Burma’s former dictator Snr-Gen Than Shwe and president of the former quasi-civilian regime, U Thein Sein, built pagodas, they said.

A supporter of the protesters was temporarily detained after allegedly swearing at Buddhist monks, leading to a scuffle during the protest.

“He was being drunk and disorderly,” said police officer Aung Than of Ottara Thiri Township, adding the man was from Rangoon. “We have detained him, and the nationalist leaders from Rangoon will take him back. We won’t take action against him.”

More than 200 police provided security for the protest and more than 100 traffic police managed the traffic.

Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko.