The Ma Ba Tha nationalist Buddhist movement in Myanmar struck out against the government Monday, calling a ban on speeches leveled against a controversial monk last week unconstitutional and demanding an explanation for the move.
Thu Saitta, a monk from the Ma Ba Tha movement, told RFA’s Myanmar Service that the Friday decision by the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee (Ma Ha Na)—Myanmar’s top Buddhist body—to prohibit outspoken member Wirathu from delivering speeches was akin to “banning one who tells the truth.”
“A monk’s responsibility is to deliver religious sermons and the government should allow monks to carry out their responsibilities,” Thu Saitta said.
“Buddha urged monks to ‘travel, deliver sermons and teach the dhamma [religious doctrine] to the people.’ I believe that banning U Wirathu is banning the truth,” he added, using an honorific title for the Ma Ba Tha leader.
On Friday, the Ma Ha Na barred Wirathu—who is known for his virulently anti-Muslim rhetoric—from making public speeches for one year because he “repeatedly delivered hate speech against religions to cause communal strife and hinder efforts to uphold the rule of law,” according to a statement which did not specify what punishment he would face for violating the ban.
The following day, the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture said the monk leader would face legal action if he goes against or criticizes the ban.
The move represents the first by Aung San Suu Kyi’s ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party against Wirathu, though many in the party have been calling for action against the inflammatory monk for months.
On Monday, Thu Saitta said that donations collected at Wirathu’s speeches go to the less privileged, so the government’s decision, by extension, was meant to “bully the poor.”
But he also struck out at what he said was an unjust bid to censor Wirathu’s provocative views.
“The constitution allows freedom of speech, but we don’t have freedom of speech in this ‘democratic’ government,” he said.
“We will respond to this action against U Wirathu. We will determine who banned U Wirathu from speaking and find out why they did it to him. We also plan to meet with monks and nationalist groups, and demand our right to speak about the Buddha’s teachings freely.”
According to the Myanmar Times, Wirathu held a silent protest in Einme township, Ayeyarwady region, on Saturday evening against the Ma Ha Na ban that was posted in a live video on his Facebook account. In the video, the nationalist monk had his mouth covered with two pieces of colored tape.
The Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture denied any knowledge of the silent protest when contacted by the Times.
Recently, Wirathu had drawn public ire for praising the brutal murder of Ko Ni—a prominent Muslim lawyer and critic of Myanmar’s powerful military—hailing those who planned the assassination as defenders of the country’s race and religion.
Ko Ni was shot dead as he held his grandson on Jan. 29 outside Yangon airport in a murder that shocked the country. A taxi driver, Ne Win, was also killed trying to stop the gunman, who authorities said was hired by a former military officer who is on the run.
In an interview over the weekend, Minister for Religious Affairs and Culture Aung Ko told RFA that Wirathu had said “many things unbefitting a Buddhist monk” and “used scathing remarks” to criticize the NLD and government, instead of discussing Buddha’s teachings.
“We discussed this with the police and instructed them to take effective action against U Wirathu if he gives any more hate speeches against other religions or other minorities, or affects the peace and tranquility of the country,” he said.
Also on Monday, police questioned a Ma Ba Tha member and follower of Wirathu named Kyaw Myo Shwe, and confiscated his mobile phone, after a woman filed a defamation suit against him under Article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law for what she claimed were insulting posts targeting Aung San Suu Kyi on his Facebook account. Kyaw Myo Shwe faces a maximum of three years in prison if convicted.
Kyaw Myo Shwe had himself recently filed a lawsuit under the same article against prominent journalist Swe Win, who he accused of defaming Wirathu in a Facebook post criticizing the monk about his comments on Ko Ni’s murder, but withdrew his complaint last week after being pressured by his family.
Mya Mya Htay, who filed the lawsuit against Kyaw Myo Shwe at the Sangyaung police station in Mandalay, told RFA she had not done so in retaliation for his complaint against Swe Win.
“I filed against Kyaw Myo Shwe after I saw his posts and photos insulting Daw Aung San Suu Kyi,” she said, using an honorific title for the first and incumbent state counsellor and leader of the NLD.
“I didn’t do it because Kyaw Myo Shwe filed a lawsuit against Swe Win. If I see any post insulting the state counselor, the president or even Yangon region chief minister Phyo Min Thein, I will file a lawsuit against the owner of the account.”
Mya Mya Htay’s complaint listed defamatory posts on Kyaw Myo Shwe’s Facebook account from Feb. 26, March 3 and March 6, according to a police report on the lawsuit.
Kyaw Myo Shwe denied that he had specifically mentioned Aung San Suu Kyi in his Facebook posts and was therefore not liable for defaming her.
“[Mya Mya Htay] brought a lawsuit against me saying I posted insults against Daw Aung San Suu Kyi,” he said.
“I posted that if the military ever seizes state power again, the culprit of history would be the daughter of the general. But there was no name ‘Aung San Suu Kyi’ mentioned and there are many generals in Myanmar. I will explain in court.”
Aung San Suu Kyi is the daughter of national hero general Aung San, who helped bring about Myanmar’s independence from Britain in 1948, though he was assassinated six months before power changed hands.
Myanmar has transitioned from a country ruled by a military junta to one run by a civilian government under Aung San Suu Kyi, but rights groups say authorities have scaled up an attack on critical voices from the opposition.
At least 43 cases have been filed under Article 66(d) since March last year, when the current government came to power.
Reported by Set Paing Toe, Thet Su Aung and Aung Theinkha for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story erroneously identified Wirathu as vice chairman of Ma Ba Tha.