Myanmar’s ruling military has released Ashin Wirathu, a firebrand religious figure, who's been dubbed The Face of Buddhist Terror for his anti-Muslim views.
Ashin Wirathu loves to spew hatred against Myanmar’s Muslim minority, the Rohingya Muslims. Such horrific was his malicious anti-Muslim rhetoric that Time magazine declared him as "The Face of Buddhist Terror" in 2013.
That made the fundamentalist monk angry. He accused the international media outlet of violating his 'human rights'. He even went to the extent of saying Time magazine was funded by some “Arab capital", which according to him dominated “the global media.”
But Wirathu’s anti-Islam statements are like an open book. “[Muslims] are breeding so fast, and they are stealing our women, raping them. They would like to occupy our country, but I won’t let them. We must keep Myanmar Buddhist,” the monk said in the past.
While Buddhism, which is a popular faith among some Western elites and others, stands for non-violence, tranquility and spiritual peace, Wirathu espouses a militant view. He wants to turn Myanmar completely Buddhist once and for all.
“You can be full of kindness and love but you cannot sleep next to a mad dog,” the monk said, identifying mad dogs with Muslims and showing his bad karma, which contrasts with Buddhism's founding principles. Far beyond human beings, Buddhism says animals possess Lord Buddha's nature, which indicates a serious potential for enlightenment.
Now he is free to make his case for the hatred against Rohingya Muslims. Last year, he was jailed for “exciting disaffection” and inciting “hatred or contempt” against the former Aung San Suu Kyi-led government, which was ousted by the Myanmar military in February.
Interestingly, not a civilian court but the military itself made a statement to herald the gloomy fact that Wirathu was released from custody. “The case was closed and he was released this evening,” said Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun, the spokesperson for the Myanmar military.
The decision sparked global criticism, with some activist groups saying that Wirathu's vision of militant Buddhism fits well within "the military's desire to control the country".
‘Son of Buddha’
The 53-year old Wirathu left the school to be a Buddhist monk at the age of 14. In 2001, he began involving with the 969 movement, a Buddhist nationalist movement, which is founded to limit Muslim participation in Myanmar. While Muslims are a minority in Myanmar, most of them run successful businesses, which makes them a target of some Buddhists like Wirathu .
Both Wirathu and the 969 movement, in which the monk was a leading voice, claim to follow Buddha, the founding leader of the Far-Eastern-origin religion. But their fierce opposition to Islam does not seem to be anything to do with Buddha’s teachings.
"He [Wirathu] sides a little towards hate [and this was] 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," said Arriya Wuttha Bewuntha, the leading monk of Mandalay's Myawaddy Sayadaw monastery.
But Wirathu has other ideas. In September 2012, he organised a rally of monks in Mandalay to support then-President Thein Sein's racist plan to exile Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar. That rally alongside similar anti-Muslim events eventually helped trigger anti-Muslim riots across Myanmar, which saw a lot of looting of Muslim properties, killing scores of Muslims in 2013. Nearly 140,000 people, most of whom are Muslims, were forcefully displaced as a result of riots.
His support to Sein’s political leadership made the then-president call the firebrand monk “Son of Buddha” and “a noble person”, which would probably make the peaceful Buddha a little angry.
"If we are weak, our land will become Muslim," said Wirathu, defending a hardliner approach toward Myanmar’s Muslim minority. The monk urges Buddhists not to marry people carrying Islamic faith and also advocate boycotting Muslim-owned businesses.
“Muslims are like the African carp. They breed quickly and they are very violent and they eat their own kind. Even though they are minorities here, we are suffering under the burden they bring us,” said the Buddhist monk, on another occasion.
After the 969 was banned by the state, founding leaders of the group established successor organistions including the Ma Ba Tha, in which Wirathu was the unofficial leader, according to observers. Ma Ba Tha involve various anti-Muslim campaigns including advocating to pass laws limiting the civil rights of Muslims in the country.
Wirathu’s hate speech was not limited to Muslims. He publicly called UN envoy Yanghee Lee, a South Korean developmental psychologist and a prominent academic, “a bitch” and “a whore” due to her criticism of the anti-Muslim legislative campaign. He did not leave the issue there, urging her to "offer your arse to the kalars", which is a derogatory term used by racist sections of the Myanmar society to refer to Muslims.
Wirathu also appears to have on good terms with the country’s top military brass. He used his religious position to increase support to the military in the same way he has used his clerical credentials to provoke ordinary Buddhists against the country’s Muslims.
"People should worship Tatmadaw [pro- military] MPs as if they are worshipping Buddha...", he said last year, clearly exploiting religious sentiments.
He also likened the former leader of the country, Suu Kyi, to a prostitute.
Racist tirades of Wirathu and his allies bear fruit in a poisonous fashion. While the Rohingya are a protected people under the UN Genocide Convention, since 2016 Myanmar’s Buddhist-dominated government has waged a brutal campaign against them, which amounted to genocidal conduct according to the UN.
Since 2017, more than 700,000 Rohingya, who were living in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, were forced to leave their homelands for neighbouring Bangladesh, where they live in refugee camps. Hundreds of them have been killed by Myanmar security forces.