Myanmar Election Stunt Seen as Fugitive Ultranationalist Monk Turns Himself In


2020-11-02
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myanmar-monk-wirathu-police-station-yangon-nov2-2020.jpg Buddhist monk Wirathu (4th from L) waves to his followers before turning himself in at a police station in Myanmar's commercial hub Yangon, Nov. 2, 2020.
AFP

Fugitive ultranationalist Buddhist monk Wirathu, wanted on sedition charges following speeches he made attacking and insulting Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her civilian-led government last year, surrendered to police on Monday after eluding arrest for 18 months.

At pro-military rallies throughout the country, Wirathu and other nationalists have vilified State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, attacked constitutional amendments proposed by the ruling party, extolled the military as a champion of Buddhism, and condemned the international community for pursuing genocide-related charges against the army over its 2017 crackdown on Rohingya Muslims.

Yangon’s Western District Court issued an arrest warrant for Wirathu after the city’s regional government filed a case against him under Section124(a) of the Penal Code for allegedly attempting to incite disaffection with the government in May 2019. The statute carries a punishment of up to three years in prison.

Before handing himself in, Wirathu accused the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) of harassing him and freezing his bank account, forcing him into a life on the run.

He told a group of supporters outside the police chief’s office in Yangon not to vote for the civilian-led NLD in national elections on Nov. 8, though political analysts believe that the incumbent party will win reelection.

“I have never said a word that violated Section 124,” Wirathu said.

“The NLD government has sued me,” he said. “It’s an act of bullying and shaming a monk, a son of the Buddha.”

Wirathu went on to say that he would have been “negligent” if he had turned himself in “without doing anything for the 2020 election,” and that he has been recording videos of speeches and uploading them daily online.

“Please do your part by eliminating this evil crap bird party,” he told the crowd, referring to the NLD whose party flag features a peacock, a prominent symbol of Myanmar.

‘A plot connected to politics’

Some observers said Wirathu’s surrender to the authorities is a deliberate effort to destabilize the NLD with only six days to go before voting.

“We think he must have planned to give himself up at a critical time like this,” said NLD spokesman Monywa Aung Shin, who suggested the monk was “attempting to complicate the situation in the elections.”

Thet Swe Win, executive director of Synergy Center for Social Harmony, said it was more than mere coincidence that Wirathu surfaced just days before the elections.

“He must have some plot to mess up the election or he may want to influence what will happen after the election,” he said.

Min Zeya, vice chairman of the People’s Party, said it was unusual that Wirathu was never caught even though he remained in the country.

“It is even more unusual that he turned himself in a few days before the election,” he said. “Given the history and actions of U Wirathu in the past, I am suspicious about his motives for turning himself in. I think it’s part of some plot that is connected to politics.”

Others said the monk was being targeted or that he wanted to face charges before a possible change of government.

“They charged U [honorific] Wirathu under Section 124 to bring a stronger charge against him,” said Naung Taw Lay, secretary of the Myanmar Nationalist Network, a nationalist group that has participated in anti-Muslim rallies.

“I think the charge has been motivated by a grudge,” he said. “The authorities want to persecute him out of personal resentment. The ruling government is totally wrong on this.”

‘Discrimination against Buddhism’

Parmaukkha, a defrocked Buddhist abbot who once belonged to the former ultranationalist Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, better known as Ma Ba Tha, said that detaining Wirathu “means the authorities are discriminating against Buddhism.”

“Holding him in prison means holding the Sasana [teaching, practice, and doctrine] of the Buddha,” said Parmaukkha, who was once jailed on charges of inciting unrest during a protest.

Myanmar law requires Buddhist authorities to defrock monks before they can be formally arrested.

Nationalist activist Win Ko Ko Latt, who also was among the crowd outside the police station, said Wirathu came forward of his own accord out of a responsibility to face the charge.

“Now the 2020 election is drawing near, and there could be changes in the government administration,” he said. “That’s why he told us he wants to complete his tasks for this trial before the possible change of government.”

Political analyst Aung Thu Nyein said he saw nothing “extraordinary” in Wirathu’s decision to turn himself over to police.

“It is good that he turned himself in and has come out [of hiding] to face the charge against him,” he said. “I don’t think there is an ulterior motive behind this. Some people are just reading too much into this as part of a plot.”

Reported by Reported by Aung Theinkha, Phyu Phyu Khine, and Kyaw Lwin Oo for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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