UPDATED at 10:25 A.M. ET on 2019-08-01
Myanmar’s highest Buddhist body on Monday declared a hardline monk organization an illegal association and ordered the nationwide removal of all its signage, two weeks after its members blasted the civilian-led government at the group's annual meeting, the country’s Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture said.
The 47-member Sangha Maha Nayaka (Mahana), a government-appointed council that oversees and regulates the Buddhist clergy in Myanmar, summoned the chairman and vice chair of the ultranationalist Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation to censure them for publicly criticizing the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) government at its annual meeting in Yangon’s Insein township on June 16-17.
During the gathering, foundation members railed against the NLD-led government over its handling of the conflict with Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state, suggesting it had “tarnished the reputation” of Myanmar and the Buddhist religion.
They called for a boycott of the NLD during the general elections in 2020 and expressed support for the military, saying that soldiers were fighting for the interests of the country.
The monk group also ripped into authorities for pursuing a sedition lawsuit against one of its leaders, firebrand Buddhist monk Wirathu, after he made inflammatory comments against the government and its leader Aung San Suu Kyi at nationalist rallies.
Despite the Mahana's summons for the foundations two leaders to appear, only the vice chairman of the group, formerly known as the Committee for the Protection of Nationality and Religion (Ma Ba Tha) and a main driver of anti-Muslim sentiment in the country, showed up for the meeting.
Afterwards, the Mahana declared the group illegal and ordered it to take down its signboards across the country by Sept. 13, a statement issued by the ministry said.
Monks and layman supporters of the group who failed to comply with the decision would be charged under the relevant law, it said.
“Our ministry has made an announcement to let people know about this issue,” said ministry director Aung San Win. “The statement is seven paragraphs long. I have nothing to add nor comment.”
The ministry’s statement also said that the Mahana was done with regulating the leaders of the Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation.
‘No signboards to remove’
A Mahana monk who declined to give his name because he is not authorized to speak to the press, told RFA’s Myanmar Service that the body’s leaders had merely confirmed a decision they had already made on July 20, 2018.
“It had already been announced,” he said. “We are now confirming the decision already made earlier.”
When the Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation held its annual meeting in June 2018, it accused the NLD-led government of damaging the interests of the nation, the country’s majority Burman race, and the predominant Buddhist religion, and urged the public and monks to overthrow it by any means necessary.
In response, the Mahana ordered the group to cease all activities and remove all signage within 45 days.
Venerable Thawparka, spokesman for the Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation, said his organization had already removed all signage.
“The decision had been made in 2018,” he told RFA. “Now, it’s over a year. We have no signboards to remove. They can come and look.”
Ariyawontha, an influential Buddhist monk, said the organization was outlawed because its actions and words conflicted with Buddhist teachings.
“There are Buddha’s teaching on ethics, rules, and laws. They are the group violating these teachings. They are defying the laws,” he said.
“Mahana’s decision is correct,” he said. “It could affect the country if they carry on like this. They are out of control and speaking in an unruly manner. Their actions are a departure from Buddha’s teachings.”
The Mahana banned the foundation’s predecessor, Ma Ba Tha, in May 2017, but after the group rebranded itself as the Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation, it continued operating.
In 2018, the Mahana and the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture ruled that the foundation had illegally changed its name and ordered the group to cease all activities.
Reported by Kyaw Htun Naing for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.