Nationalist monks forced the cancellation of a press conference yesterday at which a monk had planned to call on religious and civil authorities to prevent the firebrand monk U Wirathu from spreading hate speech.
The event planned by Buddhist monk Ashin Issariya, also known as Ashin Min Thu Nya, at the Myanmar Journalist Network (MJN) was called off after dozens of monks and laymen who support U Wirathu arrived and took seats at the venue an hour before the scheduled start of the press conference.
Ashin Min Thu Nya had planned to call on the government and State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee (known as Ma Ha Na), to take action against U Wirathu in order to purify the Buddhist religion and to serve justice.
The nationalist monks said they had come to hear what Ashin Min Thu Nya had in mind when he spoke of “purifying” the religion.
As the room grew more and more crowded, organizers canceled the press conference, fearing the situation would escalate once Ashin Min Thu Nya and his monk supporters arrived.
Initially, it was agreed that five monks from each side would be allowed to attend the press conference. This agreement later collapsed, however, prompting Ko Zarni, the MJN secretary, to cancel the press conference.
The nationalist monks who had taken seats all stood up and angrily castigated Ashin Min Thu Nya for disrespecting them by failing to acknowledge their presence.
The monks began to exit the three-story building, but a group of U Wirathu supporters including some monks soon returned and demanded an explanation for the cancellation of the press conference.
Kaung Htet San, an MJN official, said he was not involved in the decision, and told them to ask the event’s organizers for the reason. Some nationalists pressed Kaung Htet San to explain how the organization had selected the invitees, and began to threaten him. In response, he angrily told them to get out of his office.
Outside the building, monks expressed their dissatisfaction with the cancellation to members of the media.
The crowd eventually swelled to about 200 people, including supporters of both sides.
Some nationalist monks stopped event organizers and asked why they had canceled the press conference, with a few even displaying physically aggressive behavior.
Local residents expressed concerns that violence would erupt during dhamma talks that were due to be held on the street. Representatives of the community asked people to leave so that they could clean the street and arrange for carpeting to be rolled out. Eventually the crowd dispersed, but not before the owner of the building asked MJN officials to move out for fear of being targeted by nationalist monks.
‘Secret’ Press Conference
With tensions so high, Ashin Min Thu Nya was forced to return to his monastery in Yangon. He invited media to a conference at the monastery at about 5pm.
Ma Ha Na earlier banned U Wirathu from delivering sermons for a year, but he used a variety of strategies to get around this, including delivering his message via social media. Wearing a mask to symbolically represent his lost speech rights, he made shooting gestures in public and warned lawyers to “eat their last meals”. He even said that he was a teacher of Kyi Lin, the accused gunman in the 2017 murder of prominent Muslim lawyer U Ko Ni.
Ashin Min Thu Nya, who comes from Karen State, has asked the government and Ma Ha Na to take action to limit the nationalist monk’s hate speech.
“I want our country to have justice. I do not want him to destroy our Buddhist religion. I do not want other people to look down on Buddhism,” he said.
Ashin Min Thu Nya said he had been threatened by nationalist monks on the phone, but added he could not be sure if the threats were serious. However, he said, “We all have a duty to protect our Buddhist religion. We all need to work together to stop [U Wirathu]. If we do not, we will not be able to stop him. If we keep ignoring his actions, our country will not have justice.”
He added that it was mainly the responsibility of the Interior Ministry and higher court judges to take action against U Wirathu.
“I want to tell the world that his action reflects his personality alone. Our Buddhist monks do not support him,” he said.
“U Wirathu violated the law. We want to know what action the government plans to take against him,” said Ashin Min Thu Nya.
He said he had called the press conference in order to explain this to the international community and to people inside the country. He said that if the government and Ma Ha Na failed to act, the country’s monks would be divided. Monks had already lost respect among the people, he said.
No Action from Authorities
Sources from the Religions Ministry said they had collected evidence in all cases in which U Wirathu had violated the law, but the higher court had not given the order to arrest him.
When a local court in Rangoon issued an order that action be taken against four nationalist youth who made threats outside a court last month, the police did not arrest them, the sources said.
Union Religions Minister U Aung Ko told reporters Monday at Parliament in Naypyidaw that Ma Ha Na had the responsibility to control monks who did not respect morality.
If the Sangha could not control those monks, then it could delegate authority to do so to his ministry, he said, and action would be taken. If action were taken against them, he said, they would fear authorities.
“We need to be united in taking action against these monks. If we are not, we cannot take action,” he said, warning that authorities should not limit their actions to minor cases.