A group of Buddhist monks in Myanmar accused of defrauding the religion by the country’s top religious council have threatened to take their case to an international court after a local district court on Friday rejected their second request to countersue the government-appointed council.
The five monks were arrested during a raid on a disputed monastery in June and subsequently charged by authorities with disobeying the State Sangha Maha Nayaka, or official Buddhist monastic committee, and defiling a place of worship with the intent to insult the religion.
They filed a counter lawsuit last month for unfair arrest but were turned down by the township court in Mayangone township north of the capital Yangon.
The court declined to accept the countersuit because the five, including prominent Buddhist leader Ottara, are facing trial in Yangon’s Tamwe Township court, where the Mahasantisukha monastery is located.
Ottara told RFA’s Myanmar Service that the monks would first attempt to file the countersuit in higher district courts in Myanmar.
But if their case was not accepted, they would file it in the United Kingdom, where Ottara is a citizen, or submit it to a United Nations court under international law, he said.
Ottara said the rejections of their countersuits so far show that “there is no rule of law in Myanmar.”
About 300 riot police and the Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee, commonly known as the Mahana, raided the Mahasantisukha monastery on June 10 over a longtime land-ownership dispute, while its abbot was visiting Japan.
Twenty monks were arrested, but 15 were freed a day later.
Ottara and four others, however, were defrocked, charged, and jailed in the capital’s notorious Insein prison, but released several days later on bail pending trial.
Their arrests prompted threats of protest from other monks.
The controversial move also led to the dismissal of Hsan Sint, the country’s religious affairs minister. In mid-June, he was charged with corruption for misappropriating state funds, although some suggest the charge was a pretext to remove him from office.
In July, the five monks tried to file charges against the 20 top Mahana members for arbitrary detention at the Bahan Township court, but their request was rejected.
Ottara told the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) news service earlier this month that the court had previously rejected the countersuit on “administrative grounds” because it was connected to the ongoing trial in Tamwe Township where he and the other monks were being prosecuted.
The countersuits grew out of an ownership dispute between the Mahana and Buddhist abbot Penang Sayadaw, also known as Pyinya Wuntha, considered by locals to be the rightful owner of the Mahasantisukha monastery.
In the June trial, lawyers for the Mahasantisukha monastery monks, including Ottara who was visiting from the UK, tried to present as evidence a letter the abbot had sent to Myanmar president Thein Sein, asking him to mediate the dispute.
When the court rejected the letter, the monks’ lawyers requested that the trial be adjourned on grounds that turning down the evidence constituted abatement, DVB reported.
In their trial, the monks have been charged under laws for which they could be sentenced to two and a half years of imprisonment.
The decade-long dispute over the monastery involves the state’s reclaiming of its land granted to Penang Sayadaw under Myanmar’s former military junta and placing it under the control of the Mahana while the abbot was abroad.
Thein Sein, whose government took over from the military junta in 2011, had issued a decree returning the monastery to the abbot as part of his overall democratic reforms.
Reported by Yadana Oo. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.