He’s been described as the “Buddhist Bin Laden,” but Ashin Wirathu thinks he has more in common with the world’s most famous fictional spy.
“James Bond is a nationalist,” the cherub-faced monk said in a recent interview. Flashing a smile, he offered a vague recollection of a movie in which 007, in order to extract information from a woman, took her to bed.
“While he did not take much pleasure in the act,” Wirathu said, “he did it for his country.”
His questionable reading of Bond aside, the firebrand Wirathu firmly says he is defending Myanmar against the people he views as the country’s main enemy: its Muslims.
Wirathu, 46, might bear as much responsibility as any individual for the desperate exodus of Muslims from Myanmar aboard overcrowded fishing boats bound for Thailand and Malaysia.
In speeches and Facebook posts, he has warned of an impending “jihad” against the huge Buddhist majority, spread rumors of Muslims systematically raping Buddhist women and called for boycotts of Muslim-owned businesses. Good Buddhists, he argues, shouldn’t mix socially with Muslims, who he says are “snakes” and “mad dogs.”
“Most Muslims destroy our country, our people and the Buddhist religion,” Wirathu said.
He represents the blunt edge of systematic religious discrimination in Myanmar that has driven about 1 million Rohingyas, a Muslim minority group, to the farthest margins of society.
Human rights groups say Wirathu and the radical movement he leads, called 969, stoked sectarian riots that have killed scores since 2012. About 100,000 Rohingyas have been forced into internment camps ridden with disease and malnutrition in the western state of Rakhine, deprived of outside assistance since the government expelled foreign aid groups in 2014.
Wirathu’s militant Buddhist nationalism is fed by official propaganda that portrays the Rohingya as people from Bangladesh who entered Myanmar illegally and have encroached on native lands, although many Rohingya families have lived in Myanmar for generations. Government policies deny the Rohingya citizenship or the right to vote and subject them to severe restrictions on movement, marriage and procreation.
“Wirathu plays a central role with his hate speech and the Islamophobia that it creates, given that the Rohingya are surrounded by a hostile community that can be whipped into violence very quickly,” said Penny Green, director of the International State Crime Initiative at Queen Mary University of London and author of a forthcoming report on Myanmar.
But the Myanmar government’s treatment of the Rohingya has cast a heavy shadow over the democratic transition.
It is difficult to see how Muslims, or any group, could pose a threat to Myanmar’s dominant religion. In this country of 51 million, 9 of 10 people are Buddhist. The Rohingya are believed to account for barely 2%, though exact figures aren’t known because they were excluded from last year’s national census.
Wirathu offers scant evidence for his claims, saying only that he reviews websites each morning and receives reports “directly from the people.” Yet his rhetoric has built support for government policies that critics compare to those of apartheid-era South Africa…
Wirathu’s venomous tirades are at odds with the common Western conception of a Buddhist monk: a gentle, saffron-robed ascetic in the mold of the Dalai Lama.
In a nearly two-hour meeting with three journalists from The Times at the home of one of his associates in Yangon, he was genial and relaxed, snacking on yogurt and fruit as young male aides orbited around him, but his demeanor soured when the subject turned to Islam.
“I read the Koran,” he said, his eyes narrowing. “To tell you the truth, I didn’t find anything I liked.”
I may be twisted but I understand why many view this monk as a nationalist hero of his country.