Religious Affairs Minister Says No Monk is Above the Law

By Lawi Weng & Pyay Kyaw 14 July 2016

RANGOON — Extremist Buddhist monk Wirathu could be charged if someone were to complain to the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee, said Minister of Culture and Religious Affairs Aung Ko, who also criticized Ma Ba Tha for “making problems with other religions.”

He said that those charging Wirathu or other extremist monks would need to have “evidence” that a law had been violated.

The State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee, popularly known by the Burmese-language acronym “Ma Ha Na,” is a government-appointed clerical council that oversees Buddhist monastic discipline in Burma.

Wirathu, and the ultra-nationalist monks association Ma Ba Tha that he belongs to, have fronted hate campaigns against Muslims in Burma, and lobbied successfully last year for the passage of four “Protection of Race and Religion” laws—restricting religious conversion, religious intermarriage, polygamy and childbirth—widely interpreted as targeting Muslims.

On Tuesday, Ma Ha Na announced that Ma Ba Tha was not a “lawful monks’ association” because “it was not formed in accordance with the country’s monastic rules.”

Aung Ko was speaking to reporters on the second day of the 10th national conference of Burma’s Sangha (monkhood), convened by Ma Ha Na in the grounds of Rangoon’s Kabaraye Pagoda. The minister had briefly joined one of the morning sessions.

“I do not want to attack anyone personally,” Aung Ko said. “I am just saying to any monk that, if you or anyone else violates the law, we will take action against you.”

The minister said that if anyone were to come to Ma Ha Na with a complaint against a monk using hate speech, and were to supply evidence including voice recordings, the Ma Ha Na would instruct their members to investigate and take necessary action.

Aung Ko added that that if Ma Ba Tha—whose full name translates as the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion—kept “making problems with other religions,” disturbing the peace and flouting Buddhist “discipline,” the government would “take action against them according to the existing laws.”

He confirmed that Wirathu, who frequently speaks on behalf of Ma Ba Tha, would be charged if someone were to file a legitimate complaint against him.

The minister lamented that the actions of “some extremist people” had led to criticism of Buddhism in Burma from other countries. He said that, by co-existing with the other religious, Burmese Buddhism could demonstrate its peacefulness.

He compared existing religious pluralism in Burma—evident in the “mosques, churches and Hindu temples” sitting alongside Buddhist pagodas in downtown Rangoon—favorably with that of “extremist countries,” which “do not let other religions exist alongside ‘their’ religion.”

He said that, if they were to “work together” with the government based on “friendship and justice,” and support peace and national reconciliation between ethnic groups, Ma Ba Tha could reclaim their dignity.

The minister also mentioned a new Hate Speech law—which would criminalize verbal attacks on other religions—being developed in consultation with “interfaith groups” comprising members of Burma’s various religious communities. Such as law, whose precise contents are not yet known to the public, would empower ordinary citizens to report discriminatory speech, he said.

At an evening press conference the same day, Rangoon Division Religious Affairs Minister Tun Nyunt reiterated Aung Ko’s words encouraging anyone to sue members of Ma Ba Tha if they had legitimate grounds. However, Tun Nyunt suggested that complainants be directed to police stations rather than Ma Ha Na.

“If you have found that [Ma Ba Tha members] have violated laws, you can file charges directly at a police station. Civilian courts should punish them. You do not need to go to Ma Ha Na. However, if they violate the discipline of the Sangha, our Ma Ha Na will take action. Everyone has the right to charge them,” said Tun Nyunt.

Asked by The Irrawaddy whether Ma Ba Tha would be deemed an “illegal organization,” the divisional minister said, “The government will investigate whether Ma Ba Tha was formed within the law and the 2008 Constitution. If not, they will be declared illegal.”