Myanmar’s minister of religious affairs and culture has asked the council that oversees the country’s Buddhist clergy to take action against hate speech by monks belonging to an ultranationalist religious group that routinely attacks Muslims in the predominantly Buddhist country.
Minister Aung Ko made the comment during a two-day meeting of the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee (Mahana)—the government-appointed council that oversees and regulates the country’s Buddhist clergy.
He also said Ma Ba Tha could continue to exist as a social organization if it stops using hate speech and forbids its members from using it.
“I requested Mahana’s head monks to stop or take action against monks or others who make hate speeches that can incite bad blood between people or conflicts, because it is very important that we have stability and development in the country,” Aung Ko told RFA’s Myanmar Service on Wednesday.
He said that 47 of Mahana’s top monks issued a signed statement on Tuesday indicating that they agreed with the decision.
During the meeting in the commercial capital Yangon, the group distanced itself from Ma Ba Tha, saying it has never endorsed it.
Tun Nyunt, a director of the Religious Affairs and Culture Ministry, told RFA that Ma Ba Tha was not created according to Mahana’s rules and regulations.
In a statement that Ma Ba Tha issued Tuesday, the group said it was an official monastic organization set up in accordance with Mahana regulations and the constitution’s provisions on legal associations.
Aung Ko noted that the country’s constitution allows for religious and social organizations to be formed freely, and that Ma Ba Tha could exist as “social organization based on religion.”
The monk and the ‘dictator’
After Mahana issued the statement, Ashin Wirathu, an outspoken Ma Ba Tha figure who has been accused of using hate speech, lashed out at State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, calling her a dictator and blaming her civilian-led government for trying to destroy his organization.
Ma Ba Tha had supported the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) in last November’s national elections, which lost to Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD).
Wirathu wrote in a post on his Facebook page that Aung San Suu Kyi’s “woman dictator’s government” wants to imprison him and is targeting him as “enemy number one” in order to destroy Ma Ba Tha.
His attack came in response to a recent comment by Yangon region chief minister Phyo Min Thein that Ma Ba Tha is “not necessary” because the country has the Mahana.
Wirathu denounced Phyo Min Thein’s statement and said that Ma Ba Tha was formed in accordance with the constitution. Last week, he demanded that the government official apologize for the comment and threatened to stage nationwide protests.
Not monk-like behavior
In a related development a Yangon resident has filed a complaint against Wirathu for calling Yanghee Lee, the United Nations’ special envoy on human rights in Myanmar, a whore during her 2015 visit to the country.
Win Aung said he filed the complaint at the Tamwe police station, but authorities have yet to charge the outspoken and divisive monk.
“Yes, I filed it against him [Wirathu] on July 11 because he called the U.N. envoy a whore during a religious talk in 2015,” he told RFA. “A monk shouldn’t say this. It’s against monastic rules.”
During Lee’s 10-day mission in January 2015, she asked authorities in volatile Rakhine state in western Myanmar not to ignore the plight of Rohingya Muslims, tens of thousands of whom live in refugee camps following communal violence with Buddhists in 2012, and urged local Rakhine ethnics to live peacefully with them.
Her words outraged Wirathu and other Ma Ba Tha monks who staged a protest in Yangon during which he denounced Lee.
Founded in 2013, Ma Ba Tha has led frequent demonstrations against Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya, and last year pushed for the passage of legislation known collectively as the Race and Religion Protection Laws, which restrict religious conversions, polygamy, interfaith marriages, and childbirth by Muslims.
Rights advocates have criticized the laws, saying they discriminate against women and Muslims in the conservative country.
Reported by Thiha Tun, Hung Theinkha and Tin Aung Khine for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.