Myanmar’s Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture on Wednesday rejected charges of defamation and insulting religion brought against a prominent journalist by followers of an ultranationalist Buddhist group who say he insulted an outspoken member of their organization in an online post.
In a letter, the ministry said chief editor of Myanmar Now Swe Win broke no law when he posted a quote by a Buddhist abbot on Facebook saying Wirathu of the Ma Ba Tha nationalist group could no longer be considered a monk after praising the murder of a well-known Muslim lawyer.
According to the ministry, which has no legal jurisdiction, Swe Win is not guilty of intentionally defaming Wirathu because he was only carrying out his work as a journalist by informing the public about the monk’s statement and the abbot’s response on his Facebook page.
Furthermore, the ministry said, Swe Win’s post could not be considered defamation or insulting to Buddhism because his criticism of the incident had been “based on fact.”
Swe Win had requested a summary of the ministry’s opinion on the lawsuits against him, filed under Article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law in Mandalay and Article 295(a) of Myanmar’s Penal Code in Yangon.
In a Feb. 28 Facebook post, Swe Win criticized Wirathu for praising the brutal murder of Ko Ni, a prominent Muslim lawyer and critic of Myanmar’s powerful military, who was shot on Jan. 29 as he held his grandson outside Yangon airport.
The reporter said Wirathu had “committed a major violation of parajika [the Buddhist monastic code]” by doing so, referring to a statement by a prominent Buddhist abbot.
In response, Wirathu demanded an apology from Swe Win within a week.
Kyaw Myo Shwe, a Ma Ba Tha member and follower of Wirathu, then filed a lawsuit against Swe Win under Article 66(d), which prohibits use of the telecom network to defame people and carries a jail sentence of up to three years and a fine for violators.
Kyaw Myo Shwe had said he would withdraw the complaint in early March after being pressured by his family to do so, but warned that his organization was pursuing further legal action.
The second charge, filed by Thet Myo Oo in Yangon’s Kyimyintaing township, argues that Swe Win had violated Article 295(a), insulting Buddhism through his social media posts concerning Wirathu.
Swe Win on Wednesday confirmed to RFA’s Myanmar Service that he had been notified of the ministry’s response to his request.
“I received an email from the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture saying I’m not guilty of any of the charges against me,” he said.
The Irrawaddy online journal also quoted Swe Win’s legal adviser Khin Maung Myint in a report as saying that the statement from the ministry would “help a lot in fighting the criminal charges.”
When reached by RFA for comment, Kyaw Thu, a police officer from Mahar Aung Myay township in Mandalay where the lawsuit based on Article 66(d) had been filed, said authorities there “have been working on and will continue to work on Swe Win’s case according to the law.”
According to the Irrawaddy, Swe Win will meet with authorities in Kyimyintaing township to discuss the charges against him filed under Article 295(a).
As of last week, members of the Patriotic Myanmar Monks Union (PMMU) in Mandalay had collected about 40,000 signatures for a petition from monks and nuns demanding legal action Swe Win for allegedly insulting Wirathu, who is known for his fiery anti-Muslim rhetoric.
On March 10, the State Sangha Maha Nayaka (Ma Ha Na), a government-appointed body of high-ranking Buddhist monks that oversees and regulates the Buddhist clergy in Myanmar, barred Wirathu from making public speeches for one year for using hate speech against religions to cause communal strife and hinder efforts to uphold the rule of law.
Religious authorities in Mandalay warned Wirathu that if he did not adhere to the year-long ban on making public speeches, they would take action against him.
Reported by Kyaw Soe Lin for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.