Myanmar’s government is cracking down on anti-Muslim hate speech by denouncing a prominent Buddhist nationalist group.
Meanwhile convicted prominent nationalist anti-Muslim leaders are freed from the country’s jails.
Scores of Muslim residents have abandoned their villages in recent weeks fleeing for their lives after two Mosques were destroyed during ethnic and religious violence between hard-line Buddhist nationalists and local Muslims.
Nobel Peace Prize winner and government leader Aung San Suu Kyi has come under criticism from human rights activists and lawyers for not cracking down on the perpetrators of the attacks aimed at the Muslim minority.
In an apparent response to the criticism, the government has made a surprisingly decisive move against an organisation of nationalist monks, known as the Ma Ba Tha, threatening legal action if it spreads hate speech and incites violence.
On Friday, the government launched a task force to prevent violent protests as part of a broader push to stop religious violence.
Religious tension simmered in Buddhist-majority Myanmar for almost half a century of military rule, before boiling over in 2012 in the west of the country into clashes between Rohingya Muslims and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists.
Violence between Muslims and Buddhists in other areas followed in 2013 and 2014.
President Htin Kyaw said in a statement that the task force would not only move against violent protesters, but also investigate and hold accountable anyone inciting violence.
“We do not want to disturb peaceful protests, but we do not allow violence while protesting,” said Zaw Htay, spokesman for the State Councillor’s Office occupied by Suu Kyi.
Critics have accused the group of using hate speech and inspiring violence against Muslims, and members of the ruling National League for Democracy party have said Ma Ba Tha is largely responsible for the spread of Islamophobia across the country.
The Sangha Council, the country’s officially sanctioned order of monks, declared on Tuesday that it did not recognise Ma Ba Tha as a member of the country’s Buddhist order.
Most politicians have been reluctant to criticise the group because its nationalist message seemed popular in overwhelmingly Buddhist Myanmar.
‘Enemy number one’
“I’ve realised that the ruling party and the new government are targeting me as their ‘enemy number one’ to dismantle the whole Ma Ba Tha,” Wirathu said in his Wednesday statement. “A dictatorial woman’s government is going to put me in prison.”
His group was hostile to Suu Kyi’s party even before last November’s election, but didn’t stem its landslide victory.
Ma Ba Tha – more formally known as the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion – “was never recognised as a real Buddhist organisation”, Win Htein, a spokesman for Suu Kyi’s ruling party and a government legal affairs expert, said on Friday.
“Now the Sangha Council finally has to denounce them because they have become uncontrollable.”
He said the government was reluctant to act ahead of the council’s action, but now was less constrained.
Minister of Culture and Religion Aung Ko told reporters on Thursday that the government plans to ask the Sangha Council to deal with cases of hate speech.
Ma Ba Tha has built networks across Myanmar after initial violence against Muslim Rohingyas in western Rakhine state in 2012.
As recently as June, there were two mob attacks on Muslim religious institutions in other parts of the country.
Aside from any violence it may have directly incited, Ma Ba Tha successfully lobbied the previous military-backed government for a series of laws that rights groups say discriminate against women and religious minorities.
Tun Kyi, a prominent Muslim peace activist and former political prisoner, said the government’s challenges to Ma Ba Tha come too late.
“They had caused violence, death and forcing people from their homes, and that shows the lack of rule of law in this country,” he said.
Myanmar drops anti-Muslim activist defamation charges against Nay Myo Wai, Anadolu Agency reports:
A prominent anti-Muslim activist has been freed from detention after being previously charged with defamation for posting a provocative statement on Facebook about the Myanmar’s military chief and its de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.
The ruling — in which a court dropped all charges Friday against Nay Myo Wai — has fuelled fears among opponents that Myanmar’s courts continue to practice double standards, in a country with growing problems of racial and religious discrimination.
Wunna Shwe — joint general secretary of the country’s Islamic Religious Affairs Council — expressed his concerns to Anadolu Agency that the court could grant seeming impunity to such a high profile anti-Muslim activist while others charged with similar crimes have been sentenced to jail for at least six months.
“To be honest, it makes us worry,” he told Anadolu Agency by phone.
Nay Myo Wai — the chairman of the Yangon-based Peace and Diversity Party — was arrested in early May 2016 after an activist filed a complaint against him for a post he made that claimed Army Chief Min Aung Hliang had failed to launch a coup against Suu Kyi’s ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) after it won last year’s election because he wanted to marry the Nobel laureate.
He was charged under the Electronic Transaction Act for defaming both parties — punishable by up to three years imprisonment, a fine or both.
However, after two months detention in Prison in Pathein, the capital of the Ayeyawaddy region in Myanmar’s west, he was released Friday.
“Pathein Township court dropped all charges against him on the grounds of there being insufficient evidence,” Win Ko Ko Latt of the nationalist Myanmar National Network told Anadolu Agency by phone.
“We nationalists support him for his patriotic spirit and movement,” said the leader of the group, best known for organizing demonstrations against the country’s Muslims.
Prior to his arrest, Nay Myo Wai had maintained a high profile at such demonstrations alongside nationalist Buddhist monks, and has frequently associated local Muslims with terrorists.
In January, he threatened local journalists before demonstrations in Yangon, prior to condemning United Nations’ and international media’s claims that many people then stranded on a boat at sea were Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state.
In December last year, Chaw Sandi Tun — a political activist and NLD member – and Kachin peace activist Khun Ja Lee were sentenced to six months in jail for Facebook posts deemed to insult the military chief and other senior army officers.
They were both charged separately under the Electronic Transaction Act.
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