Myanmar President Thein Sein’s office has expressed concern over the recent disruption of literary events in the country following objections that the speakers were Muslims or opposition members or those affiliated with the two groups.
Presidential spokesman Ye Htut said it was “against the constitution” to prevent people from participating at literary events based on their race, religion, and political affiliation.
In one incident earlier this month, local officials barred two Muslim writers from the civil society group 88 Generation Students and the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party from speaking at an event following a threat by dozens of Buddhist monks to disrupt the function.
The monks who claimed to be members of the Myanmar Patriotic Sangha Union made the threat at a Union Day event in Yangon’s North Okklapa township on Feb. 12.
They wanted the event canceled because Mya Aye from the 88 Generation movement and Ko Ni, a legal advisor for opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD, were Muslims.
The NLD, which had organized the public discussion, canceled the event as fellow writers Aung Thein and Than Soe Naing, who are Buddhist, refused to speak without their colleagues.
Ye Htut told RFA’s Myanmar Service Thursday that the monks protesting the event had acted against Article 348 of the constitution, which forbids discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, culture, gender or financial status.
“Some people have asked writers not to speak because they are from different religions or races,” Ye Htut said.
“It is against the constitution, which prohibits discrimination. I think local authorities should resolve this problem together with the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee [the official monastic community].”
Ye Htut said that the local authorities were wrong for folding to pressure from the monks.
“If writers say something that discriminated against any religion or race after they received permission to speak at the event, they could be charged according to the law,” he said.
“But banning the event in advance is something that shouldn’t be done,” he said.
Anti-Muslim rhetoric, largely spread by nationalist Buddhist monks, has threatened President Thein Sein’s bid for national reconciliation in Myanmar, which emerged from military rule in 2011 and set a course for democratic reform.
Two rounds of unrest in western Rakhine state in June and October 2012, largely between local Buddhists and the Rohingya Muslim minority, sparked religious unrest that has since spread across the country leaving about 250 people dead and tens of thousands displaced.
According to a report by the Mizzima news agency, following the Yangon event, objections from monks also forced Mya Aye to be replaced as a speaker at a separate public lecture in Mandalay held to commemorate independence hero General Aung San, the father of Aung San Suu Kyi.
In another case, reported by Eleven Media, a literary event was cancelled last month in Pyawbwe, Mandalay region, because hard-line monks complained that one of the writers, Buddhist Ma Thida, worked with Muslims.
Eleven also said that at a talk held in Paunde, in Bago division, cartoonist Aw Pi Kyel, author Maung Tha Cho, and the NLD's Ko Ni were pressured by the Myanmar Patriotic Sangha Union not to give a lecture because Ko Ni is a Muslim.
Writer Monywa Aung Shin told RFA that disruptions of literary events based on race were in violation of Myanmar’s obligation to uphold the freedom of expression according to the country’s commitment to international rights treaties.
“Nobody should make demands like these,” he said.
“It is an insult to human culture and human rights, and even an insult to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This is a form of bullying by a group of abnormal nationalists.”
In addition to the ban on Muslim speakers, other writers have faced restrictions, largely for their political affiliations.
Writers Nyi Pu Kalay, Maung Sein Win, and U Phone were recently banned from giving public talks in Pyawbwe township on Feb. 4, after a township administration officer claimed they were propagating for the NLD.
According to Eleven, U Phone said that they only stated that people should rightly vote for those who can genuinely serve the interest of the country during the next election, planned for November 2015.
The authorities have also prohibited any video distribution of the talk, the report said.
PEN Myanmar, a nongovernmental organization, released a statement earlier this week denouncing the banning of authors from speaking at literary events, regardless of the motivation.
“Freedom of expression has been stated in both Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Section 354 (a) of the 2008 [Myanmar] Constitution,” the statement said.
Reported by Khin Khin Ei for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.