After a ritual prayer atoning for past sins, Ashin Wirathu, a Buddhist monk with a rock-star following in Myanmar, sat before an overflowing crowd of thousands of followers and launched into a rant against what he called the “enemy” - the country’s Muslim minority.
“You can be full of kindness and love, but you cannot sleep next to a mad dog,” Wirathu said, referring to Muslims.
“I call them troublemakers, because they are troublemakers,” Wirathu said after his two-hour sermon. “I am proud to be called a radical Buddhist.”
The world has grown accustomed to a gentle image of Buddhism defined by the self-effacing words of the Dalai Lama, the global popularity of Buddhist-inspired meditation and postcard-perfect scenes from Southeast Asia of crimson-robed, barefoot monks receiving alms from villagers at dawn.
But over the past year, images of rampaging Burmese Buddhists carrying swords and the vituperative sermons of monks like Wirathu have underlined the rise of extreme Buddhism in Myanmar. Buddhist lynch mobs have killed more than 200 Muslims and forced more than 150,000 people, mostly Muslims, from their homes.
Wirathu denies any role in the riots. But his critics say that at least his anti-Muslim preaching is helping to inspire the violence.
What began last year on the fringes of Burmese society has grown into a nationwide fundamentalist movement whose agenda now includes boycotts of Muslim-made goods.
Its message is spreading through regular sermons across the country that draw thousands of people and through widely distributed DVDs of those talks.
Buddhist monasteries associated with the movement are also opening community centers and a Sunday school program for 60,000 Buddhist children.
The hate-filled speeches and violence have endangered Myanmar’s path to democracy, raising questions about the government’s ability to keep the country’s towns and cities safe and its willingness to crack down or prosecute Buddhists in a Buddhist-majority country.
Ashin Sanda Wara, the head of a monastic school in Yangon, says the monks in the country are divided equally between moderates and extremists.
He considers himself in the moderate camp. But as a measure of the deeply ingrained suspicions toward Muslims in the society, he said he was “afraid of Muslims because their population is increasing so rapidly.”
Wirathu has tapped into that anxiety, which some describe as “demographic pressures” coming from neighboring Bangladesh.
Many in Myanmar speculate, without offering proof, that Wirathu is allied with hard-line Buddhist elements in the country who want to harness the nationalism of his movement to rally support ahead of elections in 2015. Wirathu denies any such links.
But the government has done little to rein him in. During Wirathu’s visit here in Taunggyi, traffic policemen cleared intersections for his motorcade.
Wirathu’s movement calls itself 969, three digits that symbolize the virtues of the Buddha, Buddhist practices and the Buddhist community.
Stickers with the movement’s logo are now ubiquitous nationwide on cars, motorcycles and shops. The movement has also begun a signature campaign calling for a ban on interfaith marriages, and pamphlets are distributed at sermons listing Muslim shops to be avoided.
In Mawlamyine, a multicultural city southeast of Yangon, a monastery linked to the 969 movement has established the courses of Buddhist instruction for children, which it calls “Sunday dhamma schools.” Leaders of the monasteries there seek to portray their campaign as a sort of Buddhist revivalist movement.
Yet despite efforts at describing the movement as nonthreatening, many Muslims are worried.
Two hours before Wirathu rolled into Taunggyi in a motorcade that included 60 honking motorcycles, Tun Tun Naing, a Muslim vendor in the city’s central market, spoke of the visit in a whisper. “I’m really frightened,” he said, stopping in midsentence when customers entered his shop. “We tell the children not to go outside unless absolutely necessary.”
New York Times