Commentary

Ma Ba Tha Takes Aim at the Media

By Lawi Weng 9 March 2017

RANGOON — When infamous hardline nationalist monk U Wirathu took to Facebook last month to thank suspects behind the assassination of prominent Muslim lawyer U Ko Ni for their actions, no one—including authorities—did much to stop him.

In fact, over the last few years, U Wirathu and ultra-nationalist Buddhist Association for the Protection of Race and Religion—better known by its Burmese acronym Ma Ba Tha—have faced little resistance in their inflammatory hate speech against the country’s Muslim minority.

On Wednesday, a member of Ma Ba Tha filed charges against chief correspondent of Myanmar Now Ko Swe Win under Burma’s controversial Article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law, accusing him of defaming U Wirathu.

According to the prosecutor’s statement, plaintiff U Kyaw Myo Shwe said U Wirathu was a respected monk and Ko Swe Win should apologize for writing on his Facebook that U Wirathu committed a cardinal sin and his monkhood was over.

Late last month, Ko Swe Win shared a Myanmar Now story that quoted a senior abbot who said that thanking and encouraging murder was an unforgivable offense in the monastic practice.

In other Facebook posts, Ko Swe Win said Ma Ba Tha had become more vocal since the election of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD)-led government.

Significantly, Ko Swe Win was actively investigating the perpetrators behind the assassination of U Ko Ni and was the first reporter to reveal possible suspects behind the case.

Ko Swe Win spoke to Aung Soe—a fellow inmate of suspected shooter Kyi Win—who said that he was originally asked to commit the assassination, but refused.

The Ministry of Home Affairs met with Ko Swe Win following the publication of his findings. Police investigations led to four people being arrested on suspicion of involvement.

It appears that U Wirathu and members of Ma Ba Tha were unhappy to see Ko Swe Win actively investigate the case.

Some of the accused are suspected of being Ma Ba Tha supporters and donors, and photos have surfaced online of them with Ma Ba Tha monks.

As a tool to threaten and disrupt Ko Swe Win, a member of Ma Ba Tha used Article 66(d)—a controversial and broad piece of legislation that has been increasingly used to stifle political dissent. Human rights activists have appealed to the government to abolish it.

Ma Ba Tha may have chosen to charge Ko Swe Win not just to punish him for speaking badly of U Wirathu, but also to stop him from uncovering further possible Ma Ba Tha involvement in the U Ko Ni assassination case.

Ko Swe Win has acted boldly and bravely. On Wednesday, he refused to back down and apologize, saying that he would fight for justice and face trial in accordance with the law.

“I have to question the rule of law in a country where people who support an assassination and spread hate speech over the internet go unpunished while people like me are being sued,” he said.

U Wirathu and Ma Ba Tha are known for vitriolic hate speech against the country’s Muslim minority. They may have quieted down since the NLD took power, but U Wirathu once again asserted his voice to speak out in support of the prime suspect in the cold-blooded killing in broad daylight of a prominent lawyer.

The time has come to ask how a person spreading hate speech and thanking suspected killers for their actions goes unchecked and unpunished, but a renowned journalist simply covering a crime story can so easily be charged.

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