Authorities in Myanmar have raided a monastery involved in a longstanding ownership dispute between its well-known abbot and the country’s highest office of Buddhist clergy, evicting and detaining several monks aligned with him, officials and monks said Wednesday.
Officials from Myanmar’s Ministry of Religious Affairs, accompanied by around 300 riot police, took control of the disputed Mahasantisukha monastery in Yangon’s Tamwe township late on Tuesday while Abbot Pyinya Wuntha was visiting Japan.
The authorities, acting on behalf of the State Sangha Maha Nayaka, or official Buddhist monastic committee, sealed off the monastery and herded the monks who reside there into buses that took them to a nearby pagoda, Zar Ni Win, deputy director-general of the Ministry of Religious Affairs, told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
The site was sealed according to the request of the State Sangha, which also claims the land, because “those people [monks and others] were staying at the monastery illegally,” he said.
Tamwe police told local media that 32 monastery staff—including 17 men and 15 women—were detained but released early on Wednesday. Security forces remain on guard around the compound.
Activist monk Sitagu Sayadaw told RFA’s Myanmar Service that the State Sangha had acted unreasonably in taking over the monastery in the absence of Pyinya Wuntha, who is also known as Penang Sayadaw.
“The State Sangha Maha Nayaka should think of the nation’s stability—they may have thought they were doing so when they closed the monastery, but instead they have made people angry and upset,” he said.
“The authorities and the State Sangha Maha Nayaka should solve this problem face to face with Penang Sayadaw Pyinya Wuntha, but instead, they took all the monks out of the monastery and closed it while Pyinya Wuntha was out of the country, which they shouldn’t have done.”
The dispute over the monastery has gone on for a decade after land donated by Myanmar’s former junta to Pyinya Wuntha was taken back in 2004 and placed under the control of the State Sangha while the abbot was living abroad.
The State Sangha then rented the location to film producers as a commercial enterprise until the abbot’s return last year, prompting a legal dispute.
The State Sangha reiterated its claim to the site in March last year, but President Thein Sein, whose quasi-civilian government took over from the junta in 2011 and set Myanmar on a course of democratic reforms, issued a decree in October returning the monastery to the abbot.
When the State Sangha increased its pressure on Pyinya Wuntha, claiming that his continued defiance was an affront to Buddhism, the abbot wrote to Thein Sein in February, asking him to again intervene in the dispute, and reportedly including evidence to prove that he was the original owner of the land.
In March, the State Sangha reasserted its claim over the monastery in an open letter to Pyinya Wuntha, giving him and his supporters until the end of that month to vacate the premises.
The move by authorities on Tuesday effectively endorsed the State Sangha’s claims of ownership.
Acting on a ‘grudge’
Sitagu Sayadaw said he was concerned that the authorities were acting on a “grudge” against Pyinya Wuntha, who had drawn the ire of the former military junta as a prominent dissident calling for democratic reform.
He questioned why the State Sangha refused to sit down with the abbot to resolve the dispute when even the country’s armed ethnic rebels have been holding peaceful talks with the government to sign a nationwide cease-fire agreement.
“The authorities shouldn’t grab land from [monks] that was donated … [Neither] the government nor any religious organization has the right to close this kind of building or land.”
The raid on the monastery also drew concern from Jimmy Kyaw Min Yu, one of the leaders of the 88 Generation Students group, who called the action “unjust.”
“The [State Sangha] decided to act, but it is not good to do so by force, especially when Pyinya Wuntha is away,” he said.
Yangon division director of religious affairs Sein Maw said Tuesday that his agency planned to take legal action against those at the monastery for living there in defiance of the law.
Reported by Khin Khin Ei for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.