Commentary

Firebrand Monk’s Arrest Warrant Is Beginning of the End for Buddhist Nationalists

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 5 June 2019

YANGON—None of the government’s previous attempts to rein in the Buddhist nationalist monk U Wirathu were as serious as its recent arrest warrant against him for sedition. In 2017 he was banned from preaching sermons for one year due to his religious hate speech. In the same year, the monk was ordered by the government to take down the signpost of a nationalist association in which he was a leading member.

But neither of those actions had much impact on the monk, whose chief claim to notoriety until recently has been his anti-Muslim rhetoric. Undeterred, the 50-year-old and his fellow nationalists have now embarked on a new mission—supporting the country’s military while condemning the democratically elected National League for Democracy government for trying to amend the country’s Constitution. Ironically, the monk was once jailed by the military he now supports, and the charter he is defending was drafted by his one-time jailers. The Constitution has been internationally criticized as undemocratic.

The latest blow to U Wirathu came last week when the Yangon Regional Government filed a lawsuit against him accusing him of sedition under Article 124(a) of the Penal Code. The allegation stems from a speech U Wirathu made at an anti-constitutional amendment rally in Yangon on May 5, in which he attempted to incite disaffection with the government. During a speech on the day, the monk insisted that now is not the time to fix the charter, as the government is undemocratic; to support his claim, he accused the administrative branch of intervening in the legislature and judiciary, among other things. He said elected lawmakers were incompetent and accused them of failing to protect the national interest. At the same time, he praised the military-appointed lawmakers in Parliament for safeguarding the nation, going so far as to say they should be “worshipped”.

Despite the arrest warrant, the monk is still at large. But the government has said the action against him would be taken according to proper legal procedures. If prosecuted under the article, he faces seven to 20 years in prison. Of course, the lawsuit was filed specifically against him, but make no mistake—it sends a serious warning to nationalists across the country, because U Wirathu is the face of Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar.

U Wirathu (center) addresses a pro-military rally in Yangon in October 2018. / Myo Min Soe

In other words, the strong legal action against the leading monk is another nail in the far right movement’s coffin. The government should arrest and bring U Wirathu to court without delay.

By now, it should be apparent that the monk and other nationalists’ strategy is to condemn the NLD government and claim solidarity with the military.

Criticizing the NLD is nothing new for the monk. He and his fellow nationalists have complained that the Daw Aung San Suu Kyi-led government fails to denounce the Rohingya and favors human rights over the protection of Buddhism, the country’s majority religion. After the heyday they enjoyed under the previous administration led by U Thein Sein, Myanmar nationalists have had a hard time under the NLD government, which has taken a series of actions against them. They feel vulnerable.

After a series of attacks on security forces by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) in northern Rakhine State in August 2017, the Army conducted a clearance campaign against the Rohingya. When this prompted accusations of ethnic cleansing from the international community, the nationalists grabbed their chance. They know which side their bread is buttered on.

They took part in pro-military rallies across the country, praising the Army for defending Rakhine State. One of the slogans shouted at the rallies was, “Good health to the Army chief, who is defending the country’s sovereignty, race and religion.” U Wirathu once said he would take up arms if Myanmar’s military leaders were charged at the International Criminal Court.

In the wake of the ARSA attacks, a group of leading nationalist monks personally donated 200 million kyats to the military chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, to be distributed to security forces deployed in the area and to assist in the rehabilitation of displaced people. U Wirathu and his followers traveled under state security escort to the affected area in northern Rakhine to distribute donations.

When asked recently whether the military shares the nationalist views of U Wirathu and his followers, the military spokesperson responded to The Irrawaddy that the military is just engaged in national political activities as called for under the Constitution.

A pro-military rally in Yangon in October 2018 / Myo Min Soe

Snr-Gen. Min Aung Hlaing himself was not spared public criticism after a picture of him with U Wirathu and other monks at a donation ceremony in 2016 went viral online. Referring to the controversial picture, military spokesperson Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun said recently that the military chief was donating to the clergy, not just to U Wirathu.

“He would do the same with any Buddhist monk,” he said.

Until recently, as the NLD attempted to isolate them with a series of crackdowns, the nationalists were able—with their pro-military rallies and donations to the Army—to create the public impression that they are in the same boat with the country’s powerful military, creating an appearance of immunity that is sure to intimidate at least a few of their critics.

But with the issue of his arrest warrant, U Wirathu must now see that the writing is on the wall. Recent rallies against the arrest warrant led by nationalist monks and laypersons in Yangon and Mandalay show that attempts to prosecute and detain the monk will meet with resistance. But the government has already vowed that any instability related to his arrest will be “dealt with seriously” and according to the law. Myanmar’s religious nationalists are being put on a leash.

The general public will not be sorry to see the fall of this nationalist monk, who has disgraced Buddhism. For them, the arrest order is long overdue. For the military, however, it will mean the loss of a hardcore supporter. Mi dispiace

Kyaw Phyo Tha is the news editor of the English edition of The Irrawaddy.

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