Buddhist monk Wirathu in Yangon, Burma. The 46-year-old has been blamed for inspiring sectarian violence
Radical buddhist nationalism is sweeping Burma, and at the forefront of the movement is a group more commonly associated with peace and tolerance: monks.
The most prominent among them is the controversial cleric U Wirathu, who gives passionate sermons from his Mandalay base calling on Buddhists to stand up against the “Muslim threat”.
“I believe Islam is a threat not just to Buddhism, but to the [Burmese] people and the country,” says the monk, whose boyish face and toothy grin belie the name his critics have given him: “the Buddhist bin Laden”.
The 46-year-old has been blamed for inspiring sectarian violence, which began in the long-volatile western state of Rakhine bordering Burma’s mostly Muslim neighbour, Bangladesh, but has spread to areas unused to such tension.
Hundreds of Muslims have been killed, mosques burned and many thousands driven from their homes.
Burma’s president, Thein Sein, will face demands to rein in anti-Muslim violence when he arrives on an official visit to Britain on Sunday. He has been invited by David Cameron to reward the gradual moves towards restoring democracy to Burma that began with the release from house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader, in 2011.
The former general, once a part of the military junta that ruled Burma for almost 50 years, has been criticised for allowing the ethnic attacks to continue. He will also be questioned over official tolerance of outspoken figures such as Wirathu who are blamed by many for whipping up hatred against Muslims.
It is an accusation Wirathu denies, instead blaming all the religious violence on Burma’s Muslims, who make up 5 per cent of the population.
In the leafy courtyard of the New Masoeyain monastery, where he lives and teaches, billboards display gruesome images of butchered and burned monks and of Buddhist women raped and killed – alongside pictures from around the world depicting Islamist violence.
A woman walks past a burnt out area in Sittwe, Myanmar, where dozens of Rohingya families used to live until fires destroyed the homes (GETTY)
He insists he does not believe in, and has not encouraged Buddhist attacks such as the riots a year ago in Rakhine that left 200 people dead and up to 140,000, mainly Muslims, homeless. Nor, apparently, has he joined those monks who have reportedly taken part in attacks.
He has, however, previously compared Muslims to “mad dogs” and called them “troublemakers”. Monks hold considerable sway in Burma, so when they condemn a single ethnic group at a time of political upheaval and uncertainty, critics say it is hardly surprising if violence flares. The solutions Wirathu offers to the perceived threat to Burma’s Buddhist majority are certainly provocative.
“I don’t know how you tame a wild elephant in your country,” he told The Sunday Telegraph, when asked what exactly he means when he says Buddhist Burmese should “stand up for themselves”, “but here the first thing you do is take away all their food and water. Then when the elephant is starving and weak you give him a little bit of water and teach him one word. Then you give him a little bit of food and teach him some more. That’s how we tame the elephants here.”
This is his metaphor for the imposition of economic sanctions on Muslims, who are also known as Rohingya, an ethnic grouping in the northwest that has long been denied Burmese citizenship. Buddhists, he insists, should not shop in Muslim stores, nor sell land to Muslims. This principle is being promoted by a movement, which he started in conjunction with other monks from southern Burma, known as 969.
Those figures are said to represent Buddhist virtues. In the form of a logo, however, they are a badge used to help supporters identify businesses as Buddhist-run.
It adorns videos distributed by the group showing scenes of destruction and violence supposedly caused by Muslims. It is also appearing increasingly at rallies, such as one held in Rangoon last week to protest against a front cover of Time magazine which described Wirathu as “The Face of Buddhist Terror”.
Wirathu has also proposed a ban on marriage between Buddhists and Muslims. “Women should not get married to Islamic men. If one Buddhist woman gets married to an Islamic man, it’s not just one less Buddhist [because Islam requires her to convert], but they will have one more and they will have lots of children so the population balance can change quickly.”
The poet and artist Soe Wei, who was a political prisoner of the Burmese military junta for two years, says that like many Burmese he finds it difficult to criticise a monk, though he does not share all of Wirathu’s opinions. Pressed on whether he sees Wirathu as a figure of terror or a man of peace, Soe Wei shakes his head then smiles wryly.
“I don’t see him as a man of peace. I’ve never seen anyone in authority really willing to have peace in Myanmar.”