Thousands watch YouTube videos of 45-year-old â€˜Burmese Bin Ladenâ€™ who is inciting violence against countryâ€™s Muslim minority
By Kate Hodal in Bangkok
His name is Wirathu, he calls himself the â€œBurmese Bin Ladenâ€ 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 â€œtarget innocent young Burmese girls and rape themâ€, and â€œindulge in cronyismâ€.
To ears untrained in the Burmese language, his sermons seem steady and calm â€“ almost trance-like â€“ 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.
â€œWe are being raped in every town, being sexually harassed in every town, being ganged up on and bullied in every town,â€ Wirathu recently told the Guardian, speaking from the Masoeyein monastery in Mandalay where he is based.
â€œIn every town, there is a crude and savage Muslim majority.â€
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 â€“ 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 Seinâ€™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 Burmaâ€™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 â€œallows familiarity with blood and could escalate to the level where it threatens world peaceâ€.
So he is back to leading a nationalist â€œ969â€ campaign, encouraging Buddhists to â€œbuy Buddhist and shop Buddhistâ€ 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 nationâ€™s total, Wirathu says Burmaâ€™s Muslims are being financed by Middle Eastern forces: â€œThe local Muslims are crude and savage because the extremists are pulling the strings, providing them with financial, military and technical power,â€ he said.
Not everyone agrees with Wirathuâ€™s teachings, including those of his own faith. â€œHe sides a little towards hate,â€ said Abbot Arriya Wuttha Bewuntha of Mandalayâ€™s Myawaddy Sayadaw monastery. â€œThis 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 doesnâ€™t see people through religion.â€
Critics point to Wirathuâ€™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.
The second son of eight children, Wirathu was born in 1968 in a town near Mandalay and only attended school until 14, after which he became a monk. Eager to leave â€œcivilian life rife with its greed and spiteâ€, he said he had no intention of marrying: â€œI didnâ€™t want to be with a woman.â€
Wirathu claims he has read the Qurâ€™an and counts Muslims among his friends, but said: â€œWeâ€™re not so close because my Muslim friends donâ€™t know how to talk to Buddhist monks â€¦ I can accept [being friends] if they consider me an important and respected religious figure.â€
Despite spending seven years in prison for stoking religious violence, Wirathu won a â€œfreedom of religionâ€ award in February from the UKâ€™s foremost Burmese monastery, Sasana Ramsi in London, in the same week that he spread rumours that a Rangoon school would be developed into a mosque.
Analysts warn that Wirathuâ€™s seeming freedom to preach as he pleases â€“ in addition to his influence over other monks, who have also started preaching against Islam â€“ should be taken as a wake-up call to the rest of the world. â€œIf a similar hate movement like Burmaâ€™s â€˜969â€™ movement â€“ which spreads hate speech and hate symbols â€“ [existed] specifically against, say, the Jews in Europe, no European government would tolerate it,â€ Burmese activist and London School of Economics visiting fellow Maung Zarni said.
â€œWhy should the EU not take it seriously, in a major EU-aid recipient country?â€
Both Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi have been criticised for not taking a greater stand against the violence that has racked Burma in recent months. Some have pointed to the seemingly planned nature of many of the attacks; UN special envoy Vijay Nambiar said the violence had a â€œbrutal efficiencyâ€ and cited â€œincendiary propagandaâ€ as stirring up trouble.
Multifaith activists in Burma recently took to the streets to counter the violence, distributing T-shirts and stickers with the message: â€œThere shall be no racial or religious conflicts because of me.â€ But the Buddhist-Muslim tension has already spread far and wide.
In Rangoon, a recent mosque fire that killed 13 children was widely believed to be a case of arson. And in Indonesia, eight Buddhists were beaten to death by Rohingya Muslims at a detention centre, in apparent retribution for incidents of sexual assault by Buddhist inmates against Rohingya women.
Rumours abound that those inciting the fighting, like Wirathu, are pawns for being used by Burmaâ€™s military generals to stir up trouble in the nascent democracy. But Wirathu insists he is working alone: â€œThese are my own beliefs,â€ he said. â€œI want the world to know this.â€
In a chilling sermon last month, Wirathu warned that the â€œpopulation explosionâ€ of Burmaâ€™s Muslims could mean only one thing: â€œThey will capture our country in the end.â€
And just like his namesake, this â€œBurmese Bin Ladenâ€ made a brazen call to arms: â€œOnce we [have] won this battle, we will move on to other Muslim targets.â€
The Guardian (UK)