Britain said Wednesday that it will provide legal assistance to a senior monk from the country who was among religious leaders rounded up in a Myanmar police raid on a Yangon monastery caught in a longstanding ownership dispute with the country’s highest office of Buddhist clergy.
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 disputed Mahasantisukha monastery in Yangon’s Tamwe township.
Fifteen of the monks were released a day after the raid, which occurred when the monastery’s popular abbot, Pyinya Wuntha, was visiting Japan, but Ottara and four others were charged, stripped of their clerical status by senior monks and sent to Yangon’s notorious Insein prison on June 13, according to reports.
British officials met with Ottara, an abbot of a monastery in London, for around an hour on Tuesday and said they would monitor his case, as well as provide him with assistance, Joe Fisher, a spokesman for the British Embassy in Yangon, told RFA’s Myanmar Service on Wednesday.
“As Ottara is a U.K. citizen, the British Embassy is working on providing legal help for him,” Fisher said. “We are also trying to get him legal representation, as well as health care [in detention].”
Fisher said that Ottara’s next court hearing is expected on June 20. “Embassy officials will be there to monitor his trial,” he said.
Ottara and the four other monks have been “charged under a section of the penal code that refers to ‘deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs’,” Myanmar’s Mizzima news group reported.
Pamaukkha, a monk who went to a court hearing involving the five at Tamwe Township Court, said, “They were charged with offending religion by the court.
Fisher said British officials would speak with Myanmar authorities about Ottara’s “right to defense according to the law.”
According to Agence France-Presse, Ottara is believed to have moved to Britain in the early 1990s, where he became a citizen and a prominent member of the Myanmar British community.
He had traveled to Myanmar on a working visit, AFP reported.
Call for intervention
Also on Wednesday, a group of 25 abbots from Myanmar’s second city, Mandalay, in a statement “condemned” the raid on Mahasantisukha and called for the release of the five monks, saying the ownership dispute should be solved according to religious law.
The abbots also slammed authorities’ use of force against monks.
During last week’s raid, authorities—acting on behalf of the State Sangha Maha Nayaka, or official Buddhist monastic committee—sealed off the monastery and herded the monks who reside there into buses that took them to a nearby pagoda, according to officials from the Ministry of Religious Affairs.
The site was sealed according to the request of the State Sangha, which also claims the land, because the monks “were staying at the monastery illegally,” ministry officials said.
The dispute over the monastery has gone on for a decade after land donated by Myanmar’s former junta to Abbot Pyinya Wuntha, who is also known as Penang Sayadaw, was taken back in 2004 and placed under the control of the State Sangha while he was living abroad.
The State Sangha reiterated its claim to the site in March last year, but President Thein Sein, whose quasi-civilian government took over from the junta in 2011 and set Myanmar on a course of democratic reforms, issued a decree in October returning the monastery to the abbot.
When the State Sangha increased its pressure on Pyinya Wuntha, claiming that his continued defiance was an affront to Buddhism, the abbot wrote to Thein Sein in February, asking him to again intervene in the dispute, and reportedly including evidence to prove that he was the original owner of the land.
In March, the State Sangha reasserted its claim over the monastery in an open letter to Pyinya Wuntha, giving him and his supporters until the end of that month to vacate the premises.
Last week’s raid by authorities effectively endorsed the State Sangha’s claims of ownership.
Reported by Kyaw Thu for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.