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Buddhist monks and staff from the Mahasantisukha Monastery will be charged in accordance with the law, said the Ministry of Religious Affairs at a press conference in its Rangoon office near Kaba-aye Pagoda on Wednesday.
Officials confirmed that 32 laypersons had been released from detention following the Tuesday night raid on the monastery, which is at the centre of a land dispute between local abbot, Penang Sayadwa, and the Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee, the highest office of Buddhist monks in Burma.
According to the deputy-director of the State Department of Religious Affairs, attempts by the abbot and his supporters to claim ownership of the land are a contravention of Buddhist principles.
“Privatisation of religious property is in violation of the Vinayas [Buddhist code of discipline],” he said. “The government has now respectfully donated and transferred the monastery to the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee.”
The officials did not elaborate on what charges they expected to be brought against the abbot’s followers.
The ministry official said a number of security forces were deployed during the raid because of a rumour that a large group of monks inside the monastery were armed with swords and sticks, ready to fend off the officials.
The head of the Rangoon Division’s Religious Affairs Department said that the raid on the monastery had been conducted late at night to avoid any possible conflict.
“Penang Sayadaw U Pannavamsa has no right to privately own the property as the government has already handed it over to the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee,” he said.
According to state media, Religious Affairs officials maintained that the government “supervised” the monastery construction – some 8.5 billion kyat (US$8.5 million) – which had been collected from government departments and donors, as well as a 2-billion kyat loan from the Yangon City Development Committee Bank.
Supporters of Penang Sayadaw, also known as U Pannavamsa, claim that the land was originally donated to the revered abbot in the 1990s, and that he has documents to prove it.
In an exclusive interview with DVB from Japan on Wednesday, Penang Sayadaw rejected the Sangha Committee’s claims, and said he built the Buddhist monastery “from scratch”.
“In 1995, the year I was awarded the title of Agga Maha Pandita, I was allocated an empty plot of land by the government on which I built this 10-storey monastery from scratch, with the assistance of some architects from Singapore,” he said.
“The centre was opened on 17 December 1999, and a blessing ceremony was conducted the following day, attended by [then ruler] Snr-Gen Than Shwe, Vice-Snr-Gen Maung Aye and military intelligence chief Khin Nyunt.”
The abbot went on to say that the dispute over the property arose when he went abroad for a number of years due to a financial scandal involving the monastery’s committee chairman.
“I reached out to the Sangha Maha Nayaka upon my return, expressing my gratitude to them for looking after the monastery while I was away,” he said. “However, now that I was back, I asked them to allow me to return to the Mahasantisukha Monastery. They refused, claiming the property had been transferred to them in a blessing ceremony.”
Penang Sayadaw said the matter dragged on for years, until eventually he enlisted the support of President Thein Sein last year to help him recover the holy site.
Prominent activist group 88 Generation Peace and Open Society (88GPOS) on Wednesday released a statement denouncing the raid at Mahasantisukha Buddhist Monastery by religious affairs officials.
“The incident, in a country where Buddhism is prevalent, was an ugly state of affairs, and we assume there was dishonest intent behind the forceful eviction as it was carried out while the abbot of the monastery was away on a foreign mission,” the statement read. “We hereby denounce in the strongest terms the forceful eviction at the monastery by the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee and the Ministry of Religious Affairs instead of resolving the situation with compassion and wisdom.”
88GPOS said it put the blame for the incident firmly on the shoulders of the Union government, the Rangoon divisional government and the Sangha Committee. The civic group warned that public protests could break out as a consequence of the eviction, and urged the government to find a peaceful solution to the situation.
Film actress Hla Hla Moe, a long-time supporter of Penang Sayadaw, voiced outrage at the raid on the monastery’s monks and staff.
Speaking outside the Rangoon Ministry of Religious Affairs office on Wednesday, she said, “I cannot comprehend why the Religious Affairs Ministry and the Sangha Maha Nayaka have resorted to force instead of helping and protecting the monastic community.
“Watching them rounding up Buddhist monks as if they were fugitive thugs, it was all too much for my eyes!” she exclaimed.
Meanwhile on Thursday, concerns surfaced that one of the detained monks, Ven. U Uttara, was in fact a British passport holder, having lived in England while he was head of the Birmingham Buddhist Vihara.
Speaking to DVB on Thursday, a spokesperson for the British Embassy in Rangoon said, “We have received reports that a British subject has been arrested in Rangoon, and we are following up with the relevant authorities.”