Fight With Journalist Gets Extremist Monk Banned From Preaching
In Buddhist-majority Burma, tension between an infamous, nationalist monk and a prominent, critical journalist has dominated the news since early in 2017.
The tensions built after journalist Swe Win criticized extremist monk U Wirathu (pictured above in TIME Magazine in July 2013) for openly expressing gratitude to Kyi Lin for killing a Muslim human-rights activist and state legal advisor. The aftermath of the assassination of U Ko Ni, which took place outside Yangon International Airport on Jan. 29, 2017, has occupied front pages of newspapers and websites across the country. Several news agencies independently investigated the killing and published followup stories for weeks after the assassination.
Burmese journalist Swe Win, chief editor of Myanmar Now, an online news outlet, was among those who published investigative stories on the assassination.
The ultranationalist monk, who was once described as the “Buddhist Bin Laden” due to his extreme Islamophobia, took to Facebook to praise the suspects in the assassination and to express his sympathy for the suspects' families.
On February 28, 2017, Swe Win criticized U Wirathu for thanking this religiously motivated killer, saying that such a response was inappropriate and did not comply with requirements of Buddhism. Swe Win argued that Buddhism does not condone killing. He then said the influential monk should be disrobed and put in prison.
“U Wirathu is a criminal and no longer a monk. He should be punished. He should be imprisoned,” Swe Win wrote.
After his criticism was published, Swe Win was quickly sued by Kyaw Myo Shwe, a supporter of the extremist monk. Police visited Swe Win's office and questioned him. The journalist was also threatened and even physically assaulted by assailants thought to be U Wirathu supporters.
Tensions between the monk, his supporters, and the journalist boiled over. Supporters of the monk collected petitions calling for action be taken against Swe Win. Supporters of the journalist also campaigned with a petition calling on the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture to judge whether U Wirathu’s acts and words comply with the teachings of Buddha.
U Wirathu has become well known for his hate-filled speeches railing against the Muslim minority in western Burma. In a public sermon in February, he urged women in the country to marry dogs instead of Muslim men if they cannot find Buddhist husbands.
“If women can’t find a husband, get a dog. Canines are as able as Muslim men," U Wirathu said.
“If you [women] are willing to take my suggestion about a dog, but you feel reluctant to marry the dogs here [in Burma], let me know, and I will order some from abroad,” the polarizing monk added.
When Swe Win alleged that U Wirathu had violated a Buddhist monastic prohibition by supporting a murder, the monk demanded that Swe Win apologize to him within a week. Swe Win did not show up to make that apology.
After weeks of tension between the monk and the journalist, the monk is now in retreat.
In early April, Burma’s Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture reviewed the case and stated that Swe Win did not violate the law in his criticism. The Ministry concluded the critiques had been based on fact.
A letter from the Ministry stated that “Swe Win didn’t set out with the intent to defame U Wirathu but carried out his job as a journalist.”
In addition to affirming that the journalist’s criticism was factual and would not be classified as defamation, the review also found that Swe Win had not insulted the Buddhist religion, according to the letter.
The government-appointed State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee has now banned U Wirathu from preaching sermons for one year. Government officials defended the ban, which is in effect until at least February of 2018, saying that U Wirathu's speeches were intended to provoke violence and degrade the rule of law, DW reported at the time.
As the tide turned against U Wirathu in March, Kyaw Myo Shwe also withdrew his lawsuit against Swe Win.
U Aung Ko, of the Ministry of Religious Affairs, also told journalists in March that the matter of the monk U Wirathu would be handled carefully. He said that taking this sort of preemptive action could also “stir up problems.”