A Myanmar military officer has filed a defamation lawsuit against a Buddhist monk known for a charity organization he founded in the central city of Mandalay, for posting comments on social media that were critical of the country’s top defense commander and the armed forces.
Lieutenant Colonel Myo Khaing Win of the military’s Central Command filed the complaint at Amarapura township police station on Sept. 22, requesting that legal action be taken against Thawbita under Article 66(d) of the 2013 Telecommunications Act for his posts on Facebook criticizing military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and the role of the country’s powerful military in politics.
“The headquarters of Central Command prosecuted U [honorific] Thawbita on Sept. 17, but he is still on the run,” said San Win, chief of the Amarapura police station in Mandalay region. “As police officers, we have to do our job when someone files a complaint against another person.”
Police charged Thawbita on Sept. 22 with violating Article 66(d) which prohibits the use of the telecom network to defame people. Violators are subject to a jail term and a fine. The lawsuit can proceed once police have apprehended the monk.
Government officials, military officers, and high-ranking monks have increasingly been invoking the article to attack journalists or commentators who criticize them or their actions. Free-speech advocates have called for the repeal of the vaguely worded article.
During an interview with RFA’s Myanmar Service, the monk said he posted six items in all that pertained to the military on his Facebook page, and copied another item from elsewhere and posted it.
Thawbita wrote on Sept. 16 that the “commander-in-chief is responsible for unsafe border affairs and unstable home affairs. Commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing cannot carry out the duties that his own military group drafted.”
The same day, he also posted a picture of the military chief inspecting a cow farm, with the caption, “A cow is on a cow farm.”
Myanmar’s constitution, drafted by a military junta in 2008, gives the military control of three defense and security ministries — defense, border, and home affairs — and automatically allocates to officers a quarter of the seats in parliament.
Thawbita published a second post on Sept. 17, which said: “You [Min Aung Hlaing] know that war is worse than a natural disaster. If you really harbor goodwill for people who have been suffering under war for 50 years, please go back to the military barracks.”
Myanmar was under various forms of military rule for a half-century until a quasi-civilian government took power in 2011 under the army-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). In 2015, the nation’s first civilian-led government under the pro-democracy National League for Democracy came to power, though the military continues to wield significant power over politics, according to its constitutional right.
“The head of the police station, military officers in civilian clothing, and soldiers entered my monastery to arrest me,” Thawbita told RFA, adding that the authorities should first have informed the Sanga Maha Nayaka if they wanted to take action against him.
The Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee (Mahana) is a government-appointed council that oversees and regulates Myanmar's Buddhist clergy.
“They skipped their procedures to take action against someone,” he said, adding that he is in hiding because the military is pursuing him in anger, though he knows he will have to face trial.
In defense of his posts, Thawbita said that organizations and institutions like the military should accept reasonable criticism.
“If not, this organization could behave like a group of animals because it will not act according to any laws or regulations,” he said.
“I will keep criticizing them [the military],” the monk said. “If they can’t stand our criticism and keep showing their anger, it is like they are showing their low class and standards.”
“I posted on my Facebook page that ‘working on the rule of law is the same as working on real religious matters and honest politics,’” he said. “We have nothing good from the military. The military can’t make the rule of law and it is above the law.”
“We all have to put the military under the law,” Thawbita said. “The army’s purpose is to protect people, not to hurt them. But these days, the army exists only to protect the business interests of the families of top generals.”
Military too sensitive
Kyaw Min Swe, executive director of the Myanmar Journalism Institute and a member of the Myanmar Press Council, said the military should not be so sensitive to criticism.
“If the military charges or arrests people who write about it, then it’s as if the military itself is hurting its own dignity,” he said. “The military is powerful,” he said. “When you have power, you will have more dignity if you show generosity.”
Thawbita, who established a local charity called the Bawa Alin Foundation, participated in Myanmar’s Saffron Revolution, a series of protests in September and October 2007 triggered by the ruling military junta government’s removal of subsidies on the sale price of fuel.
“Thawbita pointed out the military’s weaknesses, and many people hate that,” said Ashin Min Thone Nya, a monk who was a leader of the Saffron Revolution.
“He wants people to come to love the military,” he said. “If the military sees his posts as positive criticism and tries to improve its shortcomings, people will love it again. But if the military intends to jail a monk, there will be more hatred for it.”
Myanmar human rights lawyer Thein Than Oo said Thawbita has been writing his opinions on social media openly while he performs charity work.
“I don’t want this kind of issue happening while our country is in crisis and is getting a lot of pressure from the international community,” he said.
On Sept. 18, a United Nations-mandated fact-finding mission issued a report calling for top military commanders, including Min Aung Hlaing, to be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court for genocide against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state during a military-led crackdown in 2017.
Security forces carried out a campaign of violence against the minority group that left thousands dead and forced more than 700,000 across the border to Bangladesh.
On Monday, an army newspaper reported that Min Aung Hlaing warned the international community a day earlier not to interfere in Myanmar’s internal affairs, as global leaders headed to New York for the U.N. General Assembly.
Reported by Nay Rein Kyaw and Kyaw Zaw Win for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.