Seeking to silence the prominent Buddhist monk and social activist Sayadaw Ashin Ariya Wun Tha Bhiwun Sa, abbot of Myawaddy Mingyi Monastery in the city of Mandalay in central Myanmar, the country’s military has filed a lawsuit that could see the monk jailed for up to two years. Following a preliminary hearing on 7 November, a provincial court has granted the monk bail.
Better known as Myawaddy Sayadaw and renowned for his work with peace and interfaith groups,* the abbot has been accused of defamation by Myanmar’s politically powerful military following an interview he gave to the local Yangon Khit Thit news website in June. During the conversation, he questioned the propriety of a more than 30 million kyat (US$20,000) donation by an army commander to the ultra-nationalist Buddhist organization the Buddha-Dhamma Parahita Foundation.
Myawaddy Sayadaw, a vocal critic of the nationalist movement that has emerged within Myanmar’s monastic sangha, told the news website that the Buddha-Dhamma Parahita Foundation had broken sangha rules of conduct by accepting the funding from the military, which he said was working to stymie democratic reform in the country.
Describing the military as thieves and robbers, the abbot accused the military of making a mockery of democracy by defying the rule of law, of intimidating the civilian population, and of occupying seats in parliament that were not won by democratic vote.
“That nationalist group is partnering with an organization [the military] that is going against the rules of Buddhist monks,” the monk was quoted telling Yangon Khit Thit in the interview. (The Irrawaddy)
In September, the military filed lawsuit accusing Myawaddy Sayadaw of defamation, a conviction of which is punishable by up to two years in prison. According to media reports, Myanmar’s military regularly uses the country’s strict anti-defamation laws to threaten and punish critics.
“The lawsuit clearly shows the military is trying to block criticism,” Myawaddy Sayadaw said last week following his bail hearing. “But I will not stop, and I will continue with what I have to do.” (Eurasia Review)
The next court hearing is scheduled for 22 November.
The Buddha-Dhamma Parahita Foundation previously garnered national and international news headlines under its former appellation Ma Ba Tha (The Patriotic Association of Myanmar), a collective of hardline Buddhist abbots and influential monks founded in 2013 and actively fueling religious division in Myanmar, especially toward the country’s Muslim minority communities. After being forced to disband in 2017 by the State Sangha, the grouping of nationalist monks reorganized under a new name.
Mayanmar has seen a steady increase in nationalist sentiment, bolstered by growth in a number of ultra-nationalist religious organizations such as the Buddha-Dhamma Parahita Foundation. However, major figures from Myanmar’s mainstream political and religious communities, including the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee of the country’s most senior monks, have publicly spoken out against the ultra-nationalist monks, saying they are not representative of the country’s Buddhist sangha, and do not reflect the essence of Buddhism.
The police have already questioned Myawaddy Sayadaw regarding his comments to the media.
“I told the police I did not mean to defame the military as they claim,” the abbot said after the defamation suit was filed against him. “The police said they will investigate and question me under the court’s instruction, but they do not know which law I will be charged under,” (The Irrawaddy, Human Rights Now)
Late last month, Amnesty International’s director for East and Southeast Asia, Nicholas Bequelin, said in a statement that Myanmar’s military continues to oppress ethnic minorities, with civilians subject to arbitrary arrest, detention, and torture, especially in the northern Shan State.
“The Myanmar military is as relentless and ruthless as ever, committing war crimes against civilians in northern Shan State with absolute impunity,” said Bequelin. (Amnesty International)
Religious tensions between Buddhists and Muslims have simmered in Myanmar for almost half a century, but came to a head with violent clashes in 2012 that killed more than 100 people. Rakhine State is one of the most sensitive and conflict-prone regions in Myanmar, particularly since outbreaks of anti-Muslim violence in 2012 and 2013, following which some 140,000 people, most of them Rohingya Muslims, were displaced. Most Rohingya remain in squalid resettlement camps where they are subject to severe restrictions, with limited access to education, healthcare, or employment opportunities, although deadly outbreaks of violence and military action saw hundreds of thousands of Rohingya flee to neighboring Bangladesh in 2017 and 2018.
Myawaddy Sayadaw has earned widespread respect and admiration for his forthright views as an outspoken critic of Buddhist nationalism, the military, and military-backed organizations and businesses, as well as for his active interfaith work to support peace and human rights in the strife-ridden country.*
“I will contest whatever lawsuit they use. Suing us shows there are no rights, but it will not stop me from speaking the truth,” said Myawaddy Sayadaw. “I will keep saying what should not be done and what should be avoided. I’m a Buddhist monk and this is my duty to show the right path for everyone.” (The Irrawaddy)
Myanmar is a predominantly Theravada Buddhist country, with 88 per cent of the population of 51.5 million people identifying as Buddhists, according to census data for 2014. Christians, folk religions, and Muslims make up the bulk of the remainder. Buddhist monks, venerated throughout Burmese society, are estimated to number in excess of 500,000, with some 75,000 nuns in the Southeast Asian country.
* Buddhist Monk Stands Firm Against Hatred and Violence in Myanmar (Buddhistdoor Global)
Monk Gets Bail After Condemning Myanmar’s Army ‘Robbers’ (The Irrawaddy)
Mandalay Colonel to Sue Monk for ‘Defaming’ Army (The Irrawaddy)
Myanmar: Military Seeks To Jail Buddhist Monk For Defamation (Eurasia Review)
Myanmar: Military Atrocities ‘Relentless and Ruthless’ in Northern Shan State (Amnesty International)
Status of Human Rights & Sanctions in Myanmar: September 2019 Report (Human Rights Now)