Junta announces corruption charge against ousted minister hated by nationalists 

The military council will pursue corruption charges against an ousted minister who played a key role in outlawing the anti-Muslim hate group Ma Ba Tha under the National League for Democracy (NLD) government, state media reported on Saturday.

The junta accused Thura Aung Ko, the NLD-appointed minister of religious affairs, of awarding religious titles to individuals in exchange for bribes, a statement in the Burmese language version of The Mirror said.

Aung Ko received 10 million kyat (more than $7,000) in July last year and 30 million kyat in March, the statement alleged. It also suggested that he had been given a Ford Everest Titanium luxury vehicle worth more than 100 million kyat ($70,000) in December 2019 by a businessman. 

The anti-corruption commission has filed lawsuits against the minister at Mayangone and Mingaladon police stations in Yangon under Section 55 of the Anti-Corruption Law, violations which are punishable by up to 15 years in prison, the statement added. 

The move makes Aung Ko the first NLD cabinet member to be charged with corruption by Min Aung Hlaing’s junta since the February 1 coup. 

The anti-corruption commission did not respond to calls from reporters seeking comment on the lawsuit.

A former Brigadier General in the army, Aung Ko also used to be a member of the central executive committee of the military-proxy Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).

He was appointed Deputy Minister of Religious Affairs in 2003 under the military regime, and was included in a list of officials subject to visa bans and asset freezes by the European Union that same year.

Like other USDP figures who were embraced by the NLD government after the 2015 general election, he was close to former general Shwe Mann. Shwe Mann was arguably State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s closest military-linked ally, and at one time the third most senior member of the military government prior to 2011. 

Although Aung Ko did not win a parliamentary seat in the 2015 general election, the NLD government appointed him Minister of Religious Affairs and Culture.

As the man responsible for outlawing the anti-Muslim Patriotic Association of Myanmar – better known by the Burmese acronym Ma Ba Tha – in May 2017, he drew the ire of Buddhist nationalists. 

The group held frequent demonstrations in recent years to support the military and was behind numerous hate-speech campaigns against the country’s Muslim minority.

In March 2017 the State Sangha Committee, the country’s highest religious authority, also imposed a one-year preaching ban on the ultranationalist monk Wirathu after he praised the assassins of highly respected Muslim lawyer Ko Ni on social media.

In response, followers of Wirathu and other ultranationalists held protests in Yangon and Naypyitaw against Aung Ko, accusing him of favouring Islam over Buddhism and calling for both his resignation and the overthrow of the NLD administration.

During an exclusive interview with Myanmar Now late last year, Aung Ko explained how he managed to disband Ma Ba Tha and its rebranded Buddha Dhamma Charity Foundation both through religious authorities and legal procedures.

Wirathu was charged with sedition in May 2019 in relation to a speech he gave earlier that year, in which he made lewd comments about State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi. After nearly 18 months in hiding, he turned himself in to the police just days before last year’s general election.

Aung Ko also faced pressure from the military for his criticism of the police force.

At an interfaith event in Yangon in January 2020, he suggested that fugitive nationalists like Wirathu remained at large because the civilian government did not have authority over the military-controlled Ministry of Home Affairs, which oversees the police. 

Military spokesperson Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun called on the government to take action against him in February 2020 regarding this remark, and accused him of defaming the military.

Both Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint have been held mostly incommunicado  since the February 1 coup, only appearing for court hearings via live video.

Many of the NLD’s chief ministers have also been charged under a law that bars causing fear or alarm to the public and inciting people to commit offences against the state. Other cabinet members remain under house arrest.


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