Five Buddhist monks were acquitted of a religious defamation charge on Thursday in the latest hearing in the high-profile Mahasantisukha Monastery case.
The quintet must continue their defence of a second charge pressed by Burma’s highest Buddhist council for ‘insubordination’.
The monks, Paññāsara, Neindira, Tazeina, Sondrasiri and UK passport-holder Uttara, also known as ‘London Sayadaw’, were arrested a year and a half ago in a raid at the Mahasantisukha Monastery in Rangoon’s Tamwe Township.
Their arrest came after a long-term ownership dispute between the monastery’s leader – the revered monk Penang Sayadaw, and the government-backed State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee, commonly referred to as the Mahana.
Following their arrest, each monk was charged with defaming religion under Article 295 (a) of the Penal Code, in addition to the 1990 Law Relating to the Sangha Organisation (insubordination).
Speaking to DVB on Thursday, Uttara confirmed the defamation charge had been conditionally dismissed.
“The court passed a verdict acquitting us of the religious defamation charge citing an article in the Code of Criminal Procedure, due to the plaintiff’s [a religious ministry representative] absence in the court hearings,” said Uttara, adding that the Regional High Court has also accepted an appeal against the 1990 Sangha law charge.
On 10 June 2014, Rangoon police, the Religious Affairs ministry and Sangha Mahanayaka officials raided the Mahasantisukha Monastery in the early hours of the morning – arresting 20 monks and more than 30 laymen staying at the monastery.
Five monks were disrobed and appeared before the Tamwe Township Court on 13 June 2014 where the charges were laid, before being transferred to Insein prison. On 20 June they were released on bail after posting 20 million kyat each (then US $20,000). The five have since been reordained.
The monastery at the centre of the debacle has been the source of long-running tension between abbot Penang Sayadaw and the government religious body. Pengang Sayadaw maintains he has a legitimate ownership of the property – but religious affairs officials claim that privatisation of religious grounds violates Burma’s Monastic Code.
Uttara hailed the court’s decision as upholding the rule of law.
“The judge’s decision today was evidently in accordance with the law – without influence or order from anyone which I see as a sign of the prevailing rule of law in the country,” he said.
The monks face six months imprisonment if convicted under the 1990 Law Relating to the Sangha Organisation.