Rein in monks, govt tells Sangha leaders

By HEIN KO SOE | FRONTIER

YANGON — Government representatives have told a clergy meeting in Yangon that Sangha leaders need to take a more active hand in policing their members, including action on illegal monasteries and the prevention of monks from taking part in street protests.

Religious Affairs Minister Thura U Aung Ko and Yangon Chief Minister U Phyo Min Thein addressed a special meeting of the State Sangha Mahayanaka Committee at a Dagon Township monastery near Shwedagon on Tuesday.

Following last month’s ministry-mandated audit of religious buildings in Yangon and Mandalay, Aung Ko said it was the Sangha’s responsibility to take action on monasteries built without official approval.

“The definition of ‘illegal monastery’ and the number of buildings came from Sangha leaders, so the government is waiting for a solution from the Sangha committee,” Aung Ko told the meeting. “If the Sangha committee cannot solve the illegal monastery issue, the government will do it.”

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Last month’s edict instructed the Sangha committee to compile a list of monasteries built without prior zoning permission, based on regulations issued by the peak religious body in 1980. The audit found over 6,000 monasteries in Yangon Region, of which 185 were built illegally.

Ashin Thumana, chairman of the Yangon Dyra Ya organization, later told the meeting that the Sangha needed to address the spread of hate speech among the laity, warning that without a plan to rein in the practice, Buddhism would come into conflict with other religions.

Phyo Min Thein echoed Ashin Thumana’s comments, telling the committee meeting that the Sangha leadership needed to devise ways of preventing its members from attending political rallies.

“Monks shouldn’t participate in demonstrations. The Sangha committee needs to consider this,” he said. When asked to elaborate after the meeting, the chief minister told Frontier the government had a “duty to protect our people”.

In recent years, monks affiliated with several nationalist organisations have taken part in public protests, notably in response to numerous political developments related to Myanmar’s population of stateless Rohingya population in Rakhine State.

The most well-known organisation, The Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, has been widely accused of fanning anti-Muslim sentiment across the country. Also known by its Burmese acronym Ma Ba Tha, the group led a number of rallies during last year’s election campaign lending tacit support to the re-election of former President U Thein Sein.  

Myanmar’s Constitution bans ordained monks from voting and participating in the wider political process.

No stranger to confrontations with the clergy himself, Phyo Min Thein raised the ire of Ma Ba Tha in July for saying that the nationalist group was “not necessary”.

Ma Ba Tha backed down from threats of a nationwide protest after the Sangha committee issued a statement distancing itself from the group later that month.

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