Myanmar’s junta arrests Swiss filmmaker, 13 cast members for defaming Buddhism

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Myanmar junta officials arrested a Swiss filmmaker and 13 cast members, accusing them of defaming Buddhism in informational videos posted on YouTube, according to a statement published by junta-controlled state media, RFA Burmese reports.

The Swiss Embassy in Yangon told Radio Free Asia on Monday that it has asked Myanmar authorities to clarify the current status of filmmaker Didier Nusbaumer.

Junta Capt. Than Naing Kyaw and other military security members arrested Nusbaumer and 13 others – including a 12-year-old girl – on Aug. 7, two weeks after a video they produced appeared on YouTube. It was first reported in state media last week.

Nusbaumer, 52, is associated with the Phaung Daw Oo Integrated Monastic Education School in Mandalay, authorities said. He wrote the screenplay while the 12-year-old girl played the main character in the story. The other cast members also came from the school.

They are accused of insulting Buddhist cultural traditions and the morals of Buddhist monks, according to state media. Authorities haven’t specified under which law they would be prosecuted.

Sensitive subject

The film, titled “Don’t Expect Anything,” portrays the message that it is meaningless to worship Buddha images or pagodas, and instead it’s important to follow Buddha’s teachings.

The 12-year-old main character uses harsh words in the film to describe how the monks enjoy the food donated by lay people every day. The film portrays her as a reincarnation of a hermit who practiced Buddhist teaching in a previous life.

The film was posted on YouTube and other social media on July 24.

On Aug. 15, after the 14 people were arrested, the school and charity group wrote to junta officials and the Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee – established by the government in 1980 to oversee the Buddhist clergy – asking for their release.

The school wrote that Nusbaumer is a former Buddhist monk at the Phaung Daw Oo monastery, a true believer in Buddhism and did not intend to offend the religion. About 90 percent of people in Myanmar follow Buddhism.

Junta-controlled newspapers first reported the arrests on Aug. 18.

When contacted by telephone by RFA, a monk at the monastery answered that all the monks have been saddened by the arrests and cannot respond at the moment.

Because of how sensitive religion can be, it’s best to avoid any kind of filming that might mislead people, said Ashin Thabarwa Nadi, the secretary of the Arakan Monks’ Association.

“In this country, such a thing could easily cause religious or ethnic riots as a political trick,” he said.

The junta as Buddhism protector

A Mandalay resident who has watched the film said on the condition of anonymity that arresting multiple people for criticizing Buddhism should not happen.

“In the film, he gave the message that we should live according to the teachings of Buddha,” the resident said. “The little girl sending alms to the monastery in the film said some words to the monks, but that is nothing more than just a scene in the movie.

“But the authorities just pinpointed that scene and arrested and detained all of them under the pretext that they have defamed Buddhism,” the resident said. “I think that should not have happened.”

When RFA contacted Aung San Win, director of the junta’s Ministry of Religion and Culture, he said he was unaware of the case.

RFA attempted to contact the junta spokesman Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun and the junta’s spokesman for the Mandalay region, Thein Htay, but they could not be reached.

It’s possible that the junta made the arrests to make itself appear to be the protector of the people and religion, said Min Thae, a political author.

“The military leaders have always tried to appear to be protecting Buddhism, trying to imply that it should be in the political arena in Myanmar,” he said. “The junta wants to create a public opinion that it is protecting the national religion, especially among its pro-military people.”

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