Religion Minister Rejects Nationalists’ Criticism, Intends to ‘Purify’ Buddhism in Myanmar

By Htet Naing Zaw 28 June 2017

NAYPYITAW — Myanmar’s religious affairs minister U Aung Ko rejected calls for his resignation from nationalists, including monks, accusing him of favoring Islam over Buddhism in the country and said he intended to “purify” Buddhism.

“My position is not appointed by [the protesters], but by the leader democratically elected by the people. I’ve no reason to resign at their demand,” the Union Minister for Religious Affairs and Culture told reporters, adding that the accusations of protesters were “baseless” and he would file lawsuits in the future.

Hundreds of nationalists and monks along with thousands of their supporters staged a protest against the minister in Naypyitaw last month. On Sunday, they again gathered in Myanmar’s two biggest cities Yangon and Mandalay, claiming the government had ignored the list of demands that they laid out at the Naypyitaw demonstration.

The minister said he would purify Buddhism, and his ministry was now drafting plans to take action against those claiming to act in the name of Buddhism but not following the religion’s doctrine, with the approval of the government and the State Buddhist Sangha Authority known by its Burmese acronym Ma Ha Na.

“People and [Buddhist] monks have pointed out that it is high time Buddhism be purified,” he said. “We’ll take action with the authority of executive and Dhamma authorities for healthy perpetuation of the religion,” he added.

His comments came after the National League for Democracy (NLD)-led government forbade ultranationalist Buddhist monk U Wirathu from giving sermons for a year in March and banned the name and signage of the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion—better known by its acronym Ma Ba Tha—in May.

U Tint Lwin, one of the organizers of recent protests, said nationalists were planning to stage a sit-in in front of Yangon City Hall.

“This is not a personal attack,” he said. “We are demanding [U Aung Ko]’s resignation because he has done nothing for [the Buddhist] race and religion.”

“He has not made any response [to our demands] and he is acting like an authoritarian. This is disrespectful to the people. We’re not insulting the government, we are just pointing out the fault of the ministry,” said nationalist U Tint Lwin.

Nationalists have accused the minister, and the NLD government, of preferential treatment of Muslim communities for allowing numerous ceremonies to mark the birth of Prophet Muhammad across Myanmar in January, when they were previously only held in Yangon and Mandalay.

The minister said permission for such celebrations was granted by concerned township administrators, not his ministry; but he had passed on the remarks that celebrations should be limited to the President’s Office and the home affairs ministry.

Nationalist protesters shut down a number of the celebrations, he added.

The minister also accused groups of paying protestors and challenged organizers to rally 100,000 to take to the streets to call for amendment of the military-drafted 2008 Constitution.

He said he “would resign and donate my possessions to the state,” if they succeeded.

Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko.