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Supporters have rallied behind embattled journalist Swe Win after a defamation complaint was filed against him on behalf of extremist monk Wirathu.
Swe Win, the distinguished editor-in-chief of Myanmar Now, was informed that a layperson identified as Kyaw Myo Shwe had filed the charge against him under the controversial article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Act in retaliation for comments the reporter made on social media about the firebrand monk.
News of the defamation suit prompted backlash on social media on Wednesday and the United States Embassy in Rangoon told DVB the mounting pile of 66(d) cases threaten to curtail freedom of speech in Burma.
“We are aware of the case against Swe Win. The US Embassy is concerned that 66[d] defamation suits are having a chilling effect on free speech in Myanmar. We believe freedom of speech is a critical component of a vibrant democracy,” a US Embassy spokesperson said on Thursday.
In a Facebook post, Swe Win had accused Wirathu, the vice chairman of the Buddhist nationalist groups known best by its Burmese acronym Ma Ba Tha, of violating pārājikas — the Buddhist code of monastic discipline.
Wirathu’s posts in question, also on Facebook, had praised the killers of renowned Muslim lawyer Ko Ni. In one recent post, the monk referred to the suspects as “friends I never met before.”
Following news of the defamation charge, Burma’s media industry and human rights community quickly threw their weight behind Swe Win, who was awarded a presidential Certificate of Honour last year for a story he exposed about years-long abuse of domestic helpers at a Rangoon-based tailoring shop. A coalition of 10 organisations released a joint statement on Wednesday evening, saying the journalist had a track record of working in the public interest.
“By gathering evidence and writing about those who are disseminating hate speech, Ko Swe Win is keeping the interest of the public in mind and fulfilling his duty as a journalist,” read the statement, signed by organisations including PEN Myanmar and the Myanmar Journalists Union.
Kyaw Myo Shwe had claimed in his submission to officers at No. 7 Police Station in Mandalay’s Maha Aung Myay Township that the award-winning journalist had previously been given a seven-day deadline to publicly retract his comments.
‘He is just a criminal’
At a press conference in Rangoon on Wednesday, Swe Win categorically ruled out apologising for his remarks, instead saying it was incumbent upon the government to reign in hate speech.
“[Wirathu] has spewed hatred not just for once but he has been doing this for a long time, instigating [unrest] across the country — this is to everyone’s knowledge,” he said.
“I wasn’t being too harsh when I said he transgressed the pārājikas because in fact he is not even a decent human being anymore — he is just a criminal and should be punished with imprisonment.”
“Our country does not tolerate unlawful associations but why does [Ma Ba Tha] exist? It is not an organisation that conforms to the monastic disciplines, but why are monks leading it? We must continue to seek an explanation regarding this organisation and continue reporting on them,” he said.
In a posting by an unverified Facebook account under Kyaw Myo Shwe’s name, the complainant appeared to indicate that he would drop the case against Swe Win, citing pressure from his elderly mother.
“My almost 80-year-old mother is upset regarding the lawsuit against the Myanmar Now correspondent Ko Swe Win,” the post uploaded on Thursday afternoon read. “My mother, who is a devout Buddhist, urged me to drop the case, expressing that she doesn’t want someone to land in trouble because of me. I want my mother to be happy and well both physically and mentally. I will do as her wish.”
“It is not that I’m backing off because I am afraid,” the post added.
‘A lack of loving kindness’
Monastic leaders have long been under pressure to either condemn or support Wirathu, the divisive public face of Ma Ba Tha.
Sanda Siri, a leading monk in the 2007 Saffron Revolution, toed a diplomatic line when asked about the latest Wirathu scandal. He told DVB he did not view Wirathu’s public lauding of Ko Ni’s killers pārājikas, but he pointed out that monks should not be praising violence.
“Buddhism is a religion of peace based upon loving kindness, and expressing gratitude to people like Ko Kyi Lin, who murdered someone, indicates a lack of loving kindness,” said Sanda Siri.
“It is not a direct transgression of the pārājikas but it opposes loving kindness and thus is in discord with Buddhist teachings.”