x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

The 'Burmese bin Laden' fomenting violence against Myanmar's Muslims

He emanates the soft-spoken calm expected of a Buddhist monk, but the venom that Sayadaw Wirathu directs at Myanmar's Muslim population has led many to see him as a chief instigator of the violence convulsing the country. Eric Randolph reports

A man salvages items in the courtyard of a partially-destroyed mosque after sectarian violence spread through central Myanmar, in Gyobingauk.
A man salvages items in the courtyard of a partially-destroyed mosque after sectarian violence spread through central Myanmar, in Gyobingauk.

BANGKOK // He emanates the soft-spoken calm expected of a Buddhist monk, but the venom that Sayadaw Wirathu directs at Myanmar's Muslim population has led many to see him as one of the chief instigators of the violence that has convulsed the country in the past two weeks.

Wirathu, a monk based in the northern city of Mandalay, has described himself as "the Burmese Bin Laden", even though he is stridently and noxiously anti-Muslim.

The misnomer notwithstanding, Wirathu has become a key figure in a growing movement of extremist Buddhists who have taken advantage of increased freedom in Myanmar to foment communal tensions.

A video that circulated on the internet this week shows Wirathu addressing a crowd and declaring, "We Buddhists let them freely practise their religion, but once these evil Muslims have control and authority over us they will not let us practise our religion.

"These Islamists have been buying land and buildings all over the country. They use that money to get our young Buddhist women."

His inflammatory speeches are seen as one of the sparks for the violence that erupted last week in the town of Meikhtila, where Buddhists and Muslims have coexisted peacefully for generations. Mobs of armed Buddhists, some led by monks, rampaged through Muslim areas for two days, destroying homes, shops and mosques. At least 40 people have been confirmed dead and 12,000 others have been forced to flee their homes to temporary camps.

The government of President Thein Sein declared a state of emergency last Friday and sent the army to the town in a bid to restore calm. But further anti-Muslim attacks were reported in three nearby towns over the weekend and spread into several towns in Bago township on Monday and Tuesday. Curfews were imposed on three more townships north of Yangon on Wednesday following further reports of violence.

At first, the attacks were said to have begun with an argument between locals in a Muslim-owned gold shop in Meikhtila, but many believe they were deliberately orchestrated.

After visiting the devastated town over the weekend, the UN's top adviser in Myanmar, Vijay Nambiar, told reporters: "There is no doubt much of this violence was planned. It seemed to have been done, in a sense, in almost a kind of brutal efficiency."

Released in 2012 after serving a nine-year prison sentence for inciting anti-Muslim violence, Wirathu has been at the forefront of a new campaign calling for a boycott of Muslim businesses, with stickers appearing on shops and vehicles across the country. The campaign takes the name 969, a reference to the nine qualities of the Buddha - six of his teachings and nine of the monkhood.

The campaign's use of religious terminology obscures its fiercely nationalist heart, which is fueled by unsubstantiated fears that Muslims are out-breeding the ethnic Burmese and infiltrating political parties, including the opposition National League for Democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi.

"NLD offices in most towns are now run by the bearded Muslims," Wirathu said in his February speech. "As NLD becomes powerful … they approach Aung San Suu Kyi. When she came back from United States or Europe that Muslim guy always picked her up with his fancy car, always. Even coming to Mandalay she used same guy and same car. They've got her. They've surrounded her."

Wirathu began to draw wider attention last year for his diatribes against the stateless Rohingya Muslims in the south-west of the country, who bore the brunt of communal clashes that left at least 180 dead and 120,000 displaced. In his interpretation, the Rohingya burned down their own houses to earn a place in internationally-funded aid camps.

Myanmar's burgeoning communal tensions threaten to undermine its transformation from an international pariah to the new darling of the world's business and diplomatic community.

The easing of repression and censorship has given extremist groups more political space to operate and promote their causes, analysts say.

"The democratic opening has allowed groups with grievances the opportunity to advance their interests. This is not unique to Myanmar," said Aung Naing Oo, of the Myanmar Peace Centre in Yangon.

He said the situation was complicated further by increased attention on security forces. In the past, Myanmar's police would likely have responded with brutal heavy-handedness to control the unrest.

But the Mandalay division government, which oversees Meikhtila, was heavily criticised after a brutal response to environmental protests against a copper mine in nearby Letpadaung in November, when police were accused of using white phosphorus grenades against protesting monks and civilians.

"The tactics against copper mine protesters backfired, and I have heard the Mandalay government did not want to use force this time around," Aung Naing Oo said.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae