His name is Wirathu, he calls himself the “Burmese Bin Laden” and he is a Buddhist monk who is stoking religious hatred across Burma.
The saffron-robed 45-year-old regularly shares his hate-filled rants through DVD and social media, in which he warns against Muslims who “target innocent young Burmese girls and rape them”, and “indulge in cronyism”.
To ears untrained in the Burmese language, his sermons seem steady and calm – almost trance-like — with Wirathu rocking back and forth, eyes downcast. Translate his softly spoken words, however, and it becomes clear how his paranoia and fear, muddled with racist stereotypes and unfounded rumours, have helped to incite violence and spread misinformation in a nation still stumbling towards democracy.
“We are being raped in every town, being sexually harassed in every town, being ganged up on and bullied in every town,” Wirathu recently told the Guardian, speaking from the Masoeyein monastery in Mandalay where he is based.
“In every town, there is a crude and savage Muslim majority.” It would be easy to disregard Wirathu as a misinformed monk with militant views, were it not for his popularity. Presiding over some 2,500 monks at this respected monastery, Wirathu has thousands of followers on Facebook and his YouTube videos have been watched tens of thousands of times.
The increasing openness of Burma, which was once tightly controlled under a military junta, has seen a wave of anti-Muslim sentiment spread across the 60 million-strong Buddhist majority – and Wirathu is behind much of it.
Rising to prominence in 2001, when he created a nationalist campaign to boycott Muslim businesses, Wirathu was jailed for 25 years in 2003 for inciting anti-Muslim hatred but freed in 2010 under a general amnesty.
Since his release, Wirathu has gone back to preaching hate. Many believe him to be behind the fighting last June between Buddhists and ethnic Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state, where 200 people were killed and more than 100,000 displaced.
It was Wirathu who led a rally of monks in Mandalay in September to defend President Thein Sein’s controversial plan to send the Rohingya to a third country. One month later, more violence broke out in Rakhine state. Wirathu says the violence in Rakhine was the spark for the most recent fighting in Burma’s central city of Meiktila, where a dispute in a gold shop quickly spiralled into a looting-and-arson spree. More than 40 people were killed and 13,000 forced to flee, most of them Muslims, after mosques, shops and houses were burned down across the city.
Wirathu says part of his concern with Islam is that Buddhist women have been converted by force and then killed for failing to follow Islamic rules. He also believes the halal way of killing cattle “allows familiarity with blood and could escalate to the level where it threatens world peace”.
So he is back to leading a nationalist “969” campaign, encouraging Buddhists to “buy Buddhist and shop Buddhist” and demarcate their homes and businesses using numbers related to the Buddha (the number refers to his nine attributes, the six attributes of his teaching and the nine attributes of the Buddhist order), seemingly with the intention of creating an apartheid state.
Wirathu openly blames Muslims for instigating the recent violence. A minority population that makes up just 5% of the nation’s total, Wirathu says Burma’s Muslims are being financed by Middle Eastern forces: “The local Muslims are crude and savage because the extremists are pulling the strings, providing them with financial, military and technical power,” he said.
Not everyone agrees with Wirathu’s teachings, including those of his own faith. “He sides a little towards hate,” said Abbot Arriya Wuttha Bewuntha of Mandalay’s Myawaddy Sayadaw monastery. “This is not the way Buddha taught. What the Buddha taught is that hatred is not good, because Buddha sees everyone as an equal being. The Buddha doesn’t see people through religion.”
Critics point to Wirathu’s lack of education to explain his extremism as little more than ignorance, but his views do have clout in a nation where many businesses are run successfully by Muslims.
Analysts warn that Wirathu’s seeming freedom to preach as he pleases – in addition to his influence over other monks, who have also started preaching against Islam – should be taken as a wake-up call to the rest of the world. In a chilling sermon last month, Wirathu warned that the “population explosion” of Burma’s Muslims could mean only one thing: “They will capture our country in the end.”
Guardian News Service