Myanmar’s Religion Ministry Must ‘Take Responsibility’ For Rabble-Rousing Monks: Interview

Monk Ashin Aikthsriya says the government must rein in wayward clergy members who foment communal tension.

Myanmar monk Wirathu (C) attends a Ma Ba Tha ceremony celebrating the passage of controversial race and religious protection laws by Myanmar's parliament in Mandalay, Sept. 21, 2015.

As religious tensions continue to simmer in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, authorities have been taking measures to subdue unruly monks who stir up problems. A week ago, the religious affairs minister asked the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee (Mahana), the country’s highest Buddhist regulatory council, to allow the government to take action against wayward monks who create social disorder. Some influential hard-line clergy members have used inflammatory rhetoric to incite communal hatred against Muslims, especially the ethnic minority Rohingya residents of western Myanmar’s Rakhine state who have been the target of a military crackdown that the international community has called a campaign of ethnic cleansing.

About a year ago, religious authorities in Mandalay prohibited firebrand monk Wirathu from giving sermons for a year because of his repeated hate speech against Muslims. Two months later, Buddhist authorities banned the ultranationalist monk network Ma Ba Tha. And last week, a court in Yangon sentenced prominent ex-Buddhist abbot Parmaukkha to three months in jail for his role in organizing a protest against the U.S. government's use of the word "Rohingya" outside the American embassy in April 2016 without obtaining permission from authorities.

Concern about the issue has been growing since the one-year ban on Wirathu delivering sermons is set to expire on March 10. Earlier this week, the Myanmar Journalist Network (MJN) in Yangon planned to host a press conference for monks to pressure the government to take action against Wirathu. Reporter Tin Aung Khing of RFA's Myanmar Service spoke to Ashin Aikthsriya, one of the organizers of the press conference, about the problem of rabble-rousing monks. What follows is an edited version of the interview.

RFA: You canceled the press conference planned by the MJN on Feb. 25 where some people were going to call for the government to take action Ma Ba Tha monk Wirathu. Why?

Aikthsriya: When we were about to start the press conference at the MJN’s offices, about 200 people including monks, men, and women showed up, so there was not enough room for all people. That’s why we negotiated with them to let only five monks each from both sides attend, as the important thing was to be able to talk to reporters about what we want. But they strongly and aggressively refused to leave the room, and that created tension between both groups. Then the office coordinator came and told us that he couldn’t let us continue holding the event because the others were arguing with us. He said he could only allow us to peacefully hold the conference and told the people [from Ma Ba Tha] that the press conference was being canceled by the MJN. We announced that the event had been canceled there, and we secured another place where we held it at my monk friend’s monastery on the evening of the same day.

RFA: Do you believe those people intended to create unrest at the event as some people have said?

Aikthsriya: Yes, they seemed as though they wanted to create unrest. They told some people who attended that they would create some disturbances during the press conference. We didn’t want any problems at the press conference. What we wanted was to explain to reporters and other people about maintaining peace and not having more hate speech from monks. If we had experienced problems while we are trying to maintain peace, we would have more disadvantages than advantages. That’s why we suspended the event [at the MJN’s offices].

RFA: Would you say that the monks who came to attend the press conference did so as an act of dissension? Do you think the Sanga Maha Nayaka can control the situation?

Aikthsriya: These monks can be controlled if the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee works with the Ministry of Religious Affairs and the Ministry of Home Affairs to take effective action against them according to the law. For example, Ashin [honorific] Parmaukkha was charged and sentenced because he has been involved in the problems of farmers who have had their lands confiscated by the military. The Home Affairs Ministry takes action on behalf of the people only if the problem doesn’t harm the military’s interests, but it doesn’t take action if the problem could hurt the military or military leaders. U [honorific] Wirathu was banned from delivering sermons for a year, but he hasn’t followed the order. Although a warrant has been issued for his arrest, he has not yet been arrested, and he has even participated in campaigns to support the military together with some other monks. Both U Parmaukkha and U Wirathu have had warrants issued for their arrests, but only U Parmaukkha was arrested, charged and sentenced — not U Wirathu. It shows we don’t have the rule of law in our country.

RFA: Why has the Ministry of Religious Affairs proceeded very carefully with handling Wirathu?

Aikthsriya: The religious affairs ministry is very sensitive. We think the ministry has to consider the possibility of having problems and violence because of its actions, although it has to take responsibility and assume accountability as the problems can become bigger if it doesn’t take action. Regarding U Wirathu, his monastery Ma Soe Yein is responsible for his actions. The monk leaders from this monastery have to warn him or control him.

RFA: You have advocated taking action against Wirathu. What do you expect to see?

Aikthsriya: We would like to tell people to be more aware of people who are supporting evil confrontations and to try to get more people to support peace and justice. It would be good for Myanmar if the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee could work with the Ministry of Religious Affairs, the Ministry of Home Affairs, and the state’s Central High Court to take effective action against such people according to the law. If not, we will have more problems.

Reported by Tin Aung Khine for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.