Hundreds of villagers took to the streets in Mon State on October 24 to demand the restoration of their religious rights. The demonstrators, in Kawt Ka Dut village, Bilin township, say they want to retake control over a local pagoda.

Shwe Bone Thar Muni Pagoda has been managed by the Kyaik Htee Saung missionary committee since 2003.

“Our goal is to recover our rights over the pagoda. We have no control over our religious ceremonies, we’ve been told to hold our seasonal offering events at unreasonable locations and we’re not convinced the pagoda is being properly looked after,” said protest leader U Kyaw Min.

The pagoda was entrusted to the missionary committee by then-Lieutenant General Khin Nyunt under the former military regime.

The demonstrators claim that the committee has improperly performed religious rites and disobeyed the instructions of the state religious authorities concerning monks’ living arrangements in the pagoda.

The local Pyithu Hluttaw MP, U Tin Ko Ko (NLD; Bilin) has called for calm, saying the situation can be resolved through negotiations between the concerned parties.

“This demonstration is not the answer,” he said. “Relations with the government are fine, but monks’ relationship with the Sangha [authorities] should be discussed.”

If the state government and the State Sangha Committee cannot resolve the matter, the case will be handled through the hluttaw in order to avoid conflict spreading among the local villagers and the Kyaik Htee Saung missionary committee, he added.

“This argument among Buddhists can be resolved,” said U Tin Ko Ko.

Villagers say a 5-foot-high (1.5-metre) statue of the sitting Buddha was stolen in 2012, while the pagoda was under the care of the Kyaik Htee Saung committee.

According to the documents describing the 2003 transfer of ownership, Lt Gen Khin Nyunt entrusted the Kyaik Htee Saung missionary committee with the pagoda’s development, with the agreement of the villagers and the Bilin township Sangha committee and its chair, U Panna Cakka.

The pagoda’s abbot, U Tay Zaw Bhar Tha, also admitted signing the document, but said he did so under duress. “Yes, I signed, but I did not agree. In those days, who would dare to resist the authorities? ” he said.

Monks at the pagoda said any comment on the matter would be made by the Kyaik Htee Saung missionary committee.