Monday, September 25, 2017

Defiant Wirathu defends ‘whore’ slur

U Wirathu has defended his personal attack on United Nations special rapporteur Yanghee Lee, saying senior monks had used similar language in the past – even at the sacred Shwedagon Pagoda.

U Wirathu talks during a protest against UN special rapporteur Yanghee Lee in Yangon on January 16. Photo: AFPU Wirathu talks during a protest against UN special rapporteur Yanghee Lee in Yangon on January 16. Photo: AFP

U Wirathu labelled Ms Lee a “whore” for opposing a package of laws he is pushing the government and parliament to enact during a protest on January 16, the final day of her 10-day visit earlier this month.

According to one translation, he told the crowd of several hundred people, “Just because you hold a position in the United Nations doesn’t make you an honourable woman. In our country, you are just a whore.”

He added, “You can offer your arse to the kalars if you so wish but you are not selling off our Rakhine State.”

He told The Myanmar Times last week that the language had been used in the past by famous monks, but could not provide examples beyond a vague reference to Shwedagon Pagoda.

“Our famous sayardaws and senior monk have used these harsh or strong words if necessary according to the time and circumstance,” he said. “You can check the history books if you don’t believe me.”

His comments come as a senior member of Myanmar’s leading Buddhist body, the Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee, said it would only consider taking action against U Wirathu if it receives a formal complaint.

The outburst was provoked by her criticism of the treatment of Muslim Rohingya in Rakhine State and her opposition to four “protection of religion” laws proposed by the Committee for the Protection of Nationality and Religion, which is better known by its Myanmar-language acronym Ma Ba Tha. U Wirathu is a prominent member of Ma Ba Tha and released an initial draft of one of the laws, on interfaith marriage, to journalists in June 2013.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein described the “sexist, insulting language” used against Ms Lee as “intolerable”, and called on religious and political leaders “to unequivocally condemn all forms of incitement to hatred including this abhorrent public personal attack against a UN-appointed expert”.

The government, however, has distanced itself from the issue, saying it is up to the Sangha committee to respond.

But U Gunarlinkarra, the deputy head of the Yangon Region Sangha committee, said the committee “can't just take action because we want to”.

“We need a complaint from the person [targeted],” he said. “If we get a complaint we will investigate and then take action.”

He also refused to condemn U Wirathu’s comments and rejected suggestions he had tarnished the image of Buddhism.

''His words can't affect all Buddhists. It also seems he is saying this to protect the country and people. However, harsh words are not good for a monk,” he said.

Despite presidential spokesperson U Ye Htut being quoted as saying the government would ask the Ministry for Religious Affairs to investigate U Wirathu’s comments, President’s Office director U Zaw Htay told The Myanmar Times that the government would not act.

“It is up to the Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee to take action according to the Sangha organisation's rules. The President’s Office will not issue instructions,” he said.

“The Sangha will tackle the issue themselves and the Ministry of Religious Affairs will assist if necessary. The township administration or religious officials will be informed if he is prosecuted.”

A spokesperson for the UN in Yangon said it was “in communication with the government” on the issue but declined to give further information, including whether a formal complaint had been submitted. Spokesperson for the UN Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights did not respond to requests for comment.

During the protest, U Wirathu also directed abuse at local human rights activists who have opposed a draft interfaith marriage law that would stop Buddhist women marrying men of other faiths.

One of those targeted, U Aung Myo Min of Equality Myanmar, said he would not seek charges against U Wirathu.

“Anybody can say what they like according to their right to free speech,” he said. “However, I don’t think this harsh language should be used against anyone.”

The interfaith marriage law is one of four proposed by the Committee for the Protection of Nationality and Religion, of which U Wirathu is a founding member.

His words have drawn some stern rebukes – including, unusually, from within the Sangha.

"Ashin Wirathu's harsh words could harm the image of the Buddhist religion,” Myawaddy Sayardaw Ashin Ariya Vamsa Bhivamsa was quoted as saying in Daily Eleven.

“The dignity of the Sasana [religion] can be saved by invoking pakasaniya kamma,” he said, referring to a formal rejection by the Sangha of the words or actions of a monk.

But Paul Fuller, a Buddhist studies expert focused on “ethnocentric” Buddhism in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, said U Wirathu was unlikely to have violated the monastic code, known as the patimokkha.

“When a monk deviates from these rules, various sanctions of increasing severity can be enacted against the monastic who transgresses them,” said Mr Fuller, who holds a PhD in Buddhist Studies from the University of Bristol and has taught at universities in the United Kingdom, Southeast Asia and Australia.

“However, very few of the 227 rules could be interpreted to prohibit a monk from expressing their own opinions, even political opinions.”

He said there is “far more focus” in the rules on criticising fellow monks than on prohibiting and individual monk from expressing opinions.

“If the monk continues to follow the rules of the patimokkha, and acknowledges any transgression of them, then, according to the monastic code, he is not committing any offence.”