The immediate dropping of ‘baseless’ charges against a London-based Buddhist monk and his colleague brought by the Burmese authorities were called for by Unite, the country’s largest union, today (Friday 20 June)
U Uttara, the Buddhist chaplain and multi-faith joint lead at Guy's and St Thomas' Hospital (GSTT), London and another monk U Panasara were bailed in Rangoon today on charges alleging religious defamation of the law and 'malicious insulting religious belief'. They face two years in jail, if convicted. The next court hearing is on 27 June.
U Uttara, who started working at GSTT as a trainee chaplain in 2004, is currently on a career break in Myanmar (Burma) at the request of the country’s minister for health and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung Sang Suu Kyi to set up multi-faith chaplaincy services in Rangoon and Mandalay.
Today, the monks were released on bail and have been allowed to go to a monastery to re-robe as monks. The minister of religious affairs was sacked last night. Altogether five monks were arrested, two of whom live in the UK – Uttara, a UK citizen, and Panasara, who has leave to remain in this country.
U Uttara is a member of the College of Healthcare Chaplains, a professional section of the Unite health sector, and the union believes that the two monks are victims of religious in-fighting between rival monks in the volatile country, only recently emerging from decades of military dictatorship.
Unite assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail said: “Unite welcomes the release on bail of U Uttara and his colleague U Panasara as they appear to have been victims of in-fighting by rival monk factions in Burma.
“The charges are baseless and illegal under Burmese law – they should be dropped immediately by the authorities.
“U Uttara is highly respected for his chaplaincy at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital and was asked to help set up multi-faith chaplaincy service by the Burmese government and pro-democracy champion Aung Sang Suu Kyi.
“He had found the work extremely challenging due to political and religious unrest. The chaplaincy services were to cover Buddhist, Muslim and Christian faiths.
“The Burmese government needs to prove that it is making good progress to creating a country where the human rights of all sections of society are respected.”
Notes for news desks:
U Uttara was accompanied by U Panasara who was trained as a chaplaincy volunteer at GSTT. Uttara had to flee Burma years ago when he was threatened with imprisonment, torture and potentially death. He gained asylum in the UK and is now a UK citizen. Panasara has right to remain in the UK, but is a Burmese passport holder.
Both have been staying in a monastery in Rangoon, run by their order of monks. A previous regime gave the land to the order, who then, under the leadership of Penang Sayadaw, built a large monastery.
He then left the country and asked another group of monks to look after it in his absence. The second group were 'government monks'.
On his return, they refused to give the monastery back; Penang went to court and got the monastery back last year. Penang left the country earlier this month on a lecture tour and Uttara was asked to look after the monastery.
On Tuesday 10 June, there was a curfew in Rangoon. At midnight between 4-5,000 people surrounded the monastery, including more than 250 government monks. The 32 laypeople and 20 monks inside were taken away, given a lecture and asked to sign a form saying the monastery belonged to the government-backed group. Five monks, including Uttara and Panasara, refused to sign and were arrested as monks.
The next day they were stripped (disrobed) as monks and were rearrested as civilians and sent to the notorious Insein Prison in Rangoon.
The British consulate finally had a visit agreed on Tuesday (17 June). The consulate official was able to bring in medication as Uttara is a diabetic and demanded that he was seen by the prison doctor.
For further information please contact Unite senior communications officer Shaun Noble on 07768 693940 and/or the Unite press office on 020 3371 2065.
- Unite is Britain and Ireland’s largest trade union with over 1.4 million members working across all sectors of the economy. The general secretary is Len McCluskey.