A court in Myanmar freed five monks on bail Friday pending their trial on charges of defaming Buddhism following a controversial raid on a monastery which has been linked to the dismissal of the country’s religious affairs minister.
Hundreds of supporters gathered outside the court in Yangon Friday in support of the five monks, who were charged with disobeying the State Sangha Maha Nayaka, or official Buddhist monastic committee, and defiling a place of worship with the intent to insult religion.
“These monks were charged under Article 295 and Religious Law 20/90,” Nay La, lawyer for one of the monks, British citizen Ottara, told RFA’s Myanmar Service after the hearing.
“They can be sentenced to six months in jail under 20/90 and [an additional] two years imprisonment under Article 295,” he said.
Nay La questioned the prosecutor’s decision to charge the five monks under Article 295, saying the higher-level authorities had not recommended such action.
“Our defense today focused on how the action [taken against the monks] is opposite from what the [Yangon regional] government ordered,” he said.
“Article 295 was not included in orders to charge these monks by either the State Sangha or the [regional] government.”
The five monks were freed on bail and Nay La said they would reconvene at the court for a follow up hearing on June 27.
The case of the five monks and the raid on the disputed Mahasantisukha monastery in Yangon’s Tamwe township has drawn the ire of Myanmar’s monastic community, which is revered by the public, with some monks threatening to hold large protests if the five were not released.
Twenty monks, including Ottara who was visiting from Britain, were held in the June 10 raid when officials from Myanmar’s Ministry of Religious Affairs, accompanied by around 300 riot police, took control of the monastery while its popular abbot, Pyinya Wuntha, was visiting Japan.
Fifteen of the monks were released a day after the raid, but Ottara and four others were stripped of their clerical status by senior monks and sent to Yangon’s notorious Insein prison on June 13, according to reports.
After their release Friday, the five monks took part in a ceremony at a monastery near Mahasantisukha to regain their status as clerics.
After the ceremony, Ottara called for a fair trial for himself and the four others ahead of next week’s hearing.
“Members of the State Sangha are religious MPs who represent 500,000 Sangha (Buddhist monks) in Myanmar,” he said.
“They must be fair in making decisions regarding all Sanghas. I call for a fair trial … as a representative of Myanmar’s 500,000 monks.”
The hearing of the five monks came a day after an announcement in Myanmar’s state media that Minister of Religious Affairs Hsan Sint had been removed from office by President Thein Sein and local media reports that he was being investigated for corruption.
On Friday, spokesperson for the President’s Office Ye Htut said that action had been taken against him because he had “failed in his duties” as a minister, using the case of the monastery raid as an example.
Hsan Sint is being detained in Yamethin prison in the Mandalay region, he said.
“Hsan Sint was appointed to Minister of Religious Affairs with the responsibility to steward the four major religions of Myanmar according to law,” he told journalists at a parliamentary meeting in the capital Naypyidaw.
“He also had a responsibility to develop Buddhism as the major religion of Myanmar and to prevent divisiveness between the Sangha, the State Sangha, and the people … He failed in carrying out all of these [responsibilities].”
He said that the monastery raid was “one of the reasons” for the action against the former minister.
“Since this monastery raid took place, the president called on him to solve the problem peacefully, not only as a religious minister, but as a follower of monks,” Ye Htut said.
“However, his efforts only led to a misunderstanding between the government and the Sangha, and he acted outside of what he was asked by the president. That’s why we detained him,” he said, without elaborating on what Hsan Sint’s role in the raid was.
Eleven news media reported Friday that Hsan Sint, who was appointed to head the Religious Affairs Ministry in January last year, had also been charged under Sec. 409/109 of the Misappropriations of State Funds Act.
It said an investigation had revealed that Hsan Sint used some 10.5 million kyat (U.S. $10,740) in funds earmarked for the ministry to construct a pagoda in his family’s name in Naypyidaw’s Lewe township in October last year and had only repaid 2.8 million kyat (U.S. $2,860) of the money.
Rakhine chief retires
Ye Htut also told reporters Friday that the government had accepted the retirement of Hla Maung Tin, the chief minister of western Myanmar’s troubled Rakhine state, where communal clashes since 2012 have left more than 250 mostly Muslim Rohingyas dead and tens of thousands displaced.
“Hla Maung Tin did as much as he could as Rakhine chief minister during these three years, but he requested that the government allow him to retire, as his health would not let him continue his duties while the situation in Rakhine state has become worse and more challenging,” he said.
“[The government] accepted his request and allowed him to retire.”
Earlier this week, the United Nations’ Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Kyung-wha Kang told reporters in New York that she had witnessed "appalling conditions" and the worst human suffering she has ever seen in camps for displaced Rohingyas in Rakhine state.
She said many Rohingyas suffer from “wholly inadequate access to basic services including health, education, water, and sanitation.”
Reported by Kyaw Lwin Oo, Tin Aung Khine, Win Naung Toe and Nay Myo Htun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.