The minister, errant monks, and the Tatmadaw chief

The Minister for Religious Affairs wants action taken against monks who he says are damaging the image of Buddhism, but there might be opposition from powerful quarters.


THE SUPREME body representing the monkhood in Myanmar, the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee, met in Yangon on February 20 for a meeting addressed by the Minister of Religious Affairs and Culture, Thura U Aung Ko. The minister urged the 47 sayadaws who comprise the committee, known by its Myanmar acronym as Ma Ha Na, to take action against monks who bring Buddhism into disrepute through their words and actions. Only Ma Ha Na has the authority to discipline errant monks and the minister’s comments have raised speculation that the committee is preparing to take action against members of the sangha who espouse extreme nationalist views.

The plenary meeting of Ma Ha Na was addressed by its chairman, Bhamo Sayadaw Dr Bhaddanta Kumarabhivamsa, who said the behaviour of some monks was incompatible with their status as members of the sangha.

“Nowadays, some monks show less regard to the threefold training, or sikkha, for one aspiring to become a disciple of the Buddha,” he said, referring to the cultivation of superior morality, superior mentality and superior wisdom. “So it becomes necessary to make all members of the sangha abide by the rules.”

Aung Ko told the meeting that most monks abided by the Buddha’s teachings, which includes a code of conduct of 227 rules, and devoted themselves to the diligent study of the Pali Buddhist canon and to practising meditation. However, some monks who ignored the Buddha’s teachings through their words and deeds were harming the image of Buddhism and he asked Ma Ha Na to take action against them.

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The minister did not name names but it was clear that he was referring to members of the sangha whose behaviour is unbecoming for a monk according to the 227 rules of conduct.

The most obvious example is U Wirathu, who wat banned by Ma Ha Na from giving public sermons for a year because of his use of hate speech.

The ban against Wirathu, who Ma Ha Na said had “repeatedly delivered hate speech against religions to cause communal strife and hinder efforts to uphold the rule of law”, expired on March 9.

Wirathu, who has called United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, Ms Yanghee Lee, a “whore” and said Buddhist women would be better off marrying dogs than Muslims, has openly supported the four suspects on trial for the brazen killing early last year of a prominent lawyer, U Ko Ni, who was a legal advisor to the National League for Democracy.

Wirathu has described himself as the “Kyi Lin Sayadaw” to show support for the suspected gunman, U Kyi Lin, who is accused of shooting Ko Ni in the head outside Yangon International Airport on January 29 last year while cradling his grandson on his return from an overseas trip.

Wirathu repeatedly praised Kyi Lin in a speech in February at Yangon’s Insein Ywama monastery marking the birthday of its sayadaw, U Tilawka Bhivamsa, the chairman of the hardline Buddhist organisation, Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, which Ma Ha Na ordered to disband in May last year.

There is a ray of hope that in the aftermath of the Ma Ha Na meeting, action will be taken against Wirathu and other monks for violating the code of conduct of members of the sangha and the law.

However, a recent comment by the Tatmadaw Commander-in-Chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, suggests that disciplining monks like Wirathu may run up against opposition from powerful forces.

In an address at the Coastal Command headquarters at Myeik on March 2, Min Aung Hlaing said the Tatmadaw’s main duties were not only defending the nation but also protecting state sovereignty, religion, culture, traditions, and the lives and property of the people. He did not elaborate on the comment about protecting religion, culture and traditions.

Apart from Kyi Lin, the other three suspects on trial for the death of Ko Ni are former Tatmadaw officers. Wirathu and the monks who support him have declared their support for the Tatmadaw and oppose the National League for Democracy government headed by State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

We are faced with the interesting scenario of minister Aung Ko wanting action against extremists to purify Buddhism and the Tatmadaw chief declaring that he will protect the religion.

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