Photos by Andrew Stanbridge
The Buddhist monk many people hold responsible for Myanmar riots that have killed hundreds of Muslims and displaced thousands more is sitting in front of me, calmly sipping a fruit shake. His name is Ashin Wirathu, and he’s telling VICE News that he is entirely dedicated to peaceful coexistence with the Muslim minority he has so often preached against. “I’m educating people not to launch counterattacks [against the Muslims],” he begins, “and preaching to them to live peacefully with people of different faiths.” He takes another sip of shake.
Wirathu has just finished a sermon at the sprawling Masoeyein monastery—home to more than 2,500 monks—he heads in Mandalay, the country's second-largest city. Hundreds of men clad in orange and maroon robes walk the grounds, their occasional chanting reverberating around the small, wood-paneled room that serves as Wirathu's office. Just outside the door, several monks gather to read a large collection of newspapers. Apparently, Ashin Wirathu understands the power of the press.
In fact, when I meet him in late August, he is already well-versed in dealing with the international media. Though supposedly a tough interview to get, nearly every journalist I know who has tried to speak to Wirathu has succeeded. A local fixer, hesitant to promise he could arrange an interview, was able to secure one for VICE News in a single day. As I leave Wirathu’s office and walk past the mass of monks reading the papers, another journalist makes her way inside.
Though Wirathu often claims that his message is misrepresented in the press, he seems quite pleased both with the attention he has received from the international media, and with the fact that he has become a symbol for Buddhist chauvinism. He even makes frequent jokes about Hannah Beech, the journalist who wrote a June 2013 cover story for Time in which she called Wirathu the “face of Buddhist terror.” He later posted an admonishment that reads kind of like a love letter from a jilted lover.
As we begin the interview, two of Wirathu’s monks point video cameras at us. Many people say this kind of behavior is meant to be a form of intimidation, but it feels to me more like a reality show. Our translator, a local Buddhist who disagrees with Wirathu, nevertheless appears reverent in the monk’s presence, and I’m not sure why. It may simply be because of the respect typically given to a Buddhist monk in this country. Or it may be due to fear.
Sitting in front of a wall covered with photos of himself, Wirathu, who has been dubbed the “Burmese bin Laden,” makes sure that I am served hibiscus tea and a plate of fresh melon before we begin. Though he is soft spoken and quick with a laugh, human rights groups say he has the potential to tear Myanmar, the southeast Asian country many refer to as Burma, apart and stall the country’s tentative transition to democracy.
Last week, Wirathu organized a conference in Mandalay for thousands of monks from all over Myanmar. His mission: to rally support for his proposed "Law for the Protection of Race, Religion, and Language." The law would require any Buddhist woman who wants to marry a Muslim to receive permission from her parents and local government officials. It would also require any Muslim man who marries a Buddhist to convert to Buddhism. If not adhered to, the groom could face up to 10 years in jail and the loss of his property. Human Rights Watch reports that Lower House representative Thein Nyunt is expected to submit the amendment to parliament.
Wirathu and his followers in the grassroots nationalist Buddhist group he leads, known as the 969 Movement, believe that Myanmar is under threat from what they claim is a dangerous, rapidly growing Muslim population. (The country is about 90 percent Buddhist.) They blame this growth on illegal immigration from Bangladesh and high birthrates. During his virulent anti-Islam sermons, Wirathu often describes Muslims as tireless proselytizers looking to take over Buddhist land with force or money, and displays graphic images of Buddhists killed by Muslims in southern Thailand and other areas of the world.
In Myanmar, where up until recently all forms of media were heavily censored, Wirathu’s sermons have become viral sensations, quickly spreading all over the country and accepted by some as gospel truth.
“Wirathu and the 969 Movement have drastically increased tensions between Muslims and Buddhists,” says Bill Davis of Physicians for Human Rights (PHR). Davis is the author of numerous reports on the violence in Myanmar, and the former head of PHR’s Burma project. “Violence against Muslims in Burma took place before Wirathu, but his speeches are contributing to the anti-Muslim sentiment resurfacing across the country.”
Last week, harrowing reports of violence against the long-oppressed Muslim Rohingya minority, including massacres and mutilations of women and children, emerged from the restricted district of Maungdaw. Chris Lewa of the Arakan project, a human rights group that documents abuses against the Rohingya, said members of the 969 Movement had toured the area a month before, calling for the expulsion of Rohingya Muslims.
Sporadic outbreaks of anti-Muslim mob violence in Myanmar began in 2012, not long after the new quasi-civilian government took power and eased the military junta’s restrictions on free speech. Violence first broke out in the southwestern state of Rakhine, but it eventually spread throughout the country. The rampages are often triggered by arguments or crimes involving individual Buddhists and Muslims, which then quickly spiral out of control.
While tensions go back generations in areas like Rakhine, the recent spate of violence against Muslims prompted Physicians for Human Rights to declare that, “If these conditions go unaddressed, Burma may very well face countrywide violence on a catastrophic level, including potential crimes against humanity and/or genocide.”
Since the downfall of the junta, Wirathu has become a symbol of Buddhist extremism. Though he has never been shown to have an active role in the violence, riots have repeatedly broken out in towns shortly after he delivered a sermon in them.
A prolific speaker, Wirathu is a fierce promoter of his own work, producing DVDs and pamphlets that flood marketplaces and social media. They all feature anti-Islam propaganda that casts Muslims as interlopers hell-bent on invading and colonizing Myanmar in order to turn it into a Muslim state.
“[Before I began preaching], most people didn’t realize these things,” Wirathu assures me.
Born in 1968 in Kyaukse, a small town near Mandalay, Wirathu says he was inspired to be a monk from a young age; he joined an order in 1985. He says he had a passion for reading and writing, but didn’t have a desire to give sermons until 2001, when he was moved to preach and open a cultural school in a small town. There, he began teaching children.
In one of his lesson plans, Wirathu says he drew a map of Myanmar and told the children the history of the Bengalis, the term Buddhists in the country use to describe the Rohingya. (“Bengali” implies that all of the Rohingya are recent illegal immigrants, though many of them have lived in Myanmar for generations). In his history, Wirathu also focused on militant Rohingya separatist movements that hadn’t been active for decades.
He would tell students how Muslims had traveled to Myanmar in order to trade, and then ended up staying in the country permanently. Muslims in Mandalay and other cities have tended to do relatively well for themselves financially, and Wirathu and 969 have advocated boycotts of all shops that are Muslim-owned. They’ve also urged Buddhists to avoid socializing with Muslims.
His lessons for children turned into sermons for all, and Wirathu grew more and more popular. Within a couple of years he became known throughout Myanmar. At the time, however, the military junta still ruled with an iron fist, imprisoning anyone who appeared capable of causing any kind of disturbance. Wirathu was jailed in 2003 for inciting violence against Muslims and was forced to give up being a monk. “As soon as I was defrocked, I felt so low,” he tells me. He also says he was tortured and humiliated while in jail.
In 2010, as Myanmar’s transition to democracy began to move forward, Wirathu was released under a general amnesty. He was allowed to return to the monastery and continued sermonizing and preaching, taking advantage of the government’s loosened restrictions on free speech. In 2012, the first of several widespread riots against Rohingya Muslims broke out in Rakhine state, and Wirathu’s profile began to grow internationally.
Critics claim that the focus on Wirathu distracts from the bigger problem—that members of the government and security forces at least condone the violence, and may very well encourage it. Punya Wontha, another well-known monk and a hero of the Saffron revolution, agrees. At his decidedly smaller and more dilapidated monastery next to a train yard in Yangon, he tells me that in shadowy elements of the government, hardliners still aligned with the junta have helped manufacture the conflicts in order to push the country away from democratic reforms and back toward military rule.
Punya Wontha is also upset that Wirathu has become Myanmar's face of Buddhism. While Punya Wontha blames Wirathu for some facets of the conflict, he also believes Wirathu is merely a pawn in the government’s strategic game to sabotage the election hopes of Aung San Suu Kyi, the longtime democratic activist, political prisoner, and Nobel Peace Prize winner.
Suu Kyi heads the National League for Democracy (NLD), the main opposition party that seeks to continue Myanmar’s movement toward unfettered democracy. The NLD, which was severely repressed prior to 2011, had an extremely strong showing in the 2012 by-elections.
The interfaith clashes put Suu Kyi in a difficult political spot, according to Punya Wontha. If she speaks up for Muslim rights, she stands to lose a significant number of votes. If she doesn’t, her sterling reputation with the human rights community—and, possibly, with the West in general—is threatened.
In an interview with the BBC in October, Suu Kyi once again failed to unequivocally condemn the anti-Muslim violence that has gripped Myanmar. David Blair, chief foreign correspondent for the Telegraph, called her response, or lack thereof, “deeply disturbing.”
Punya Wontha says holdovers from the military regime were frightened by the NLD’s triumphant election results in 2012, which is why they’re so eager to use Wirathu as a tool. It’s a commonly held belief in Myanmar, where conspiracy theories abound. As one human rights worker who has been in the country for years told me, “These people haven’t had television for 60 years. This is their entertainment.”
Punya Wontha goes even further, however, accusing the government of training Wirathu to incite violence while he was imprisoned. Why, Punya Wontha asks me, was Wirathu released during an amnesty for political prisoners when he was originally sentenced for hate speech and inciting violence? And why, when other monks are banned from traveling if they so much as insult the military once, can Wirathu continue to travel at will?
“They give permission for his sermons to go everywhere,” Punya Wontha says.
This, despite the fact Wirathu criticizes the new government. He says that the people need more freedom. And he complains about the government's around-the-clock surveillance of him, though he admits it's for his own protection. “I’ve been threatened by the Islamic people,” he tells me. “They’re going to try to kill me every chance until I die.”
"Trying To Educate People"
A few weeks before I met with Wirathu, a small car bomb had exploded near a spot where he was delivering a sermon, injuring five people. Wirathu blamed Islamic militants, but some people pointed the finger at Wirathu himself, believing he’d planned the bombing so he could blame it on Muslims.
In our interview, however, Wirathu speaks in almost relentlessly conciliatory tones. He says he is a peaceful man, and that he is focused on spreading love and harmony between all people. “[The fighting] won’t happen anymore,” he says. “I’m going to give lessons to educate the whole people to stop the violence.”
Wirathu blames Muslims for initiating the skirmishes, and says that Buddhists simply retaliate when they can no longer take any more abuse. “I’m trying to educate the people not to [retaliate],” he says, “but these aggressive Muslims must be brought to justice.”
He is adamant that he preaches peaceful coexistence, and that he doesn’t support ethnic cleansing or the calls to remove Muslims from Myanmar entirely. He warns of Rohingya extremists coming from Bangladesh. Curiously, he blames the Rohingya Solidarity Organization, a small militant group that took shape in the 1980s in Bangladesh—and which has done very little of note since. But Wirathu tells me that they want to cause unrest so they can take over the Rakhine state.
Wirathu also blames the international media and the human rights community for accepting a narrative he says is entirely false. “The world believes the made-up stories of the Muslim people. The Muslims make other people offer bribes to make up a story, to fabricate the news,” he says. “Their sole intention is to occupy the Rakhine state forever. They hide behind the masks of human rights.”
Yet Wirathu says he’s trying to create a plan for everyone to live in peace and harmony. I tell him it sounds like he’s softened his views, and he replies that he does not believe in one nationality or faith.
But what of his "Law for the Protection of Race, Religion, and Language"? What’s more representative of peace and harmony than two people from different faiths marrying?
“It is okay until Muslims force them to convert,” he explains. Wirathu says that this is always the case when Muslims and Buddhists intermarry. “I think they are violating the freedom of religion.”
On one of the DVDs he hands me before I leave, Wirathu tells the story of a Buddhist woman who marries a Muslim man and is forced to convert. She continues to pray secretly, and he catches her doing so while she is pregnant. He beats her, causing her to have a miscarriage.
Even a monk like Punya Wontha, who has spoken out about violence against Muslims and organized aid convoys to help those who have been affected by it, says he feels Muslims need to accept their place in a Buddhist society. “The Muslim people have little knowledge and are uneducated. It is very easy for elements in the government to create problems with these people,” he says, adding that the Muslim and Buddhist tensions festering in Myanmar could spread to the rest of the world.
Since my meeting with Wirathu, more violence against Muslims broke out in both Rakhine and central Myanmar. In October, the International Crisis Group (ICG) released a report speculating that anti-Muslim attacks would continue unless the government acted more effectively to contain tensions. The ICG also expressed concerns that inter-communal violence could spread throughout Southeast Asia unless the situation in Myanmar is improved.
As I walk away from Wirathu’s office, he calls out to me. He has one last thing he wants me to know. “When the story comes to an end,” he says, “the world will know who are the bad guys and who are the good guys.”