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.”
The Irony of this story is that most of the drug trade is controlled by state officials
YANGON – Myanmar has delayed by five years its deadline to eliminate drug production within its borders, a senior official said Monday, as the impoverished nation struggles to stem a growing narcotics crisis.
Authorities are “very concerned” about a rebound in poppy cultivation over the last six years in Myanmar, the world’s second-largest opium producer, while amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS) are also surging, said deputy police chief Zaw Win.
Due to “threats posed by ATS” and to achieve a reduction in poppy cultivation, Myanmar’s narcotic control board has “extended its drug elimination to 2019”, he said at the opening of six nation talks in Yangon. The previous target was 2014.
He added that Myanmar’s authorities were “doing our best” to help stem the flow of drugs in the region.
Officials from China, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam have gathered in Myanmar for days of talks on a worsening drugs crisis, which the United Nations has warned poses a threat to public security.
A ministerial-level meeting in the capital Nya Pyi Taw on Thursday is expected to produce a regional declaration on the issue.
Zaw Win told delegates that it was “crystal clear that (the) methamphetamine problem is growing rapidly”, adding that “more and more international drug syndicates are becoming involved”.
“Illicit drug production and trafficking are closely linked to instability, human security and insurgency at the border areas, which creates serious challenges to the ability of law enforcement agencies,” he said.
The drugs trade is closely linked to Myanmar’s long-running insurgencies in remote areas bordering Thailand, Laos and China – known as the golden triangle – with ethnic minority rebels widely thought to use drug profits to fund operations.
As part of its reform drive, Myanmar’s quasi-civilian government has reached tentative peace deals with most major armed ethnic groups.
But Gary Lewis, regional representative of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, in December said the ease of production of methamphetamine in small laboratories, along with distrust between the rebels and authorities meant that some groups could decide to “hedge their bets”.
Around 5.9 million methamphetamine pills were seized in Myanmar in 2011, almost double the figure for the previous year, the UN said in a December report, although seizures are likely to represent only a fraction of the amount produced.
Myanmar was once the world’s largest producer of illicit opium until it was replaced by Afghanistan in 1991. But after years of decline, poppy cultivation again began to rise in 2007.
Digicel have been quietly angling for a license in Myanmar since early 2010, back in the days when Aung San Suu Kyi was still shut in and the junta was jailing people for dissent. Since then, up to a dozen Digicel officials have been staying at the luxury hotel and working out of an unmarked office in Yangon’s Sakura Tower. They are reportedly providing technical assistance to MPT and even sponsoring a local soccer team—an attempt, says a Yangon-based former consultant to the company, to get into the same room with regime cronies and government officials.
Well now we know as of the 3rs Feb Digicel Group has officially thrown its hat in the ring to be considered for a telecommunications licence in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. The company said that it submitted its expression of interest in a bidding process, which is expected to yield two new licenced operators within the next five months.
What the selection committee will use to decide who gets the licences are still not clear, but the country will require the winners of the two nationwide telecommunications licences to “meet or exceed specified population and geographic coverage targets”.
What is clear to me is Myanmar is one of the most corrupt countries in the world and to do business in that country you must grease some palms.
However if short on manpower he can always call on Bert the Drumcondra drunk for assistance or else get the Bonox to lobby Amnasty International and Suu Kyi, to help him out with a slice of the cake….
Singapore’s SingTel, Norway’s Telenor, Malaysia’s Axiata Bharti, and India’s Airtel are also named among the bidders.
Obama is expected to urge the Southeast Asian country’s government to stay the course toward democratic reforms.
The White House has billed his visit as a celebration of the recent shift by the government of President Thein Sein, symbolized most publicly by the release of dissident Aung San Suu Kyi in 2010 after years of house arrest.
But the visit has also met with criticism from human rights advocates who argue that the accolades are premature and the presidential visit too big a reward for Myanmar’s government. Hundreds of political prisoners remain jailed and an ethnic conflict involving a minority group has erupted in recent violence.
Obama administration officials released excerpts of a speech Obama plans to give at Yangon University.
“The flickers of progress that we have seen must not be extinguished — they must become a shining North Star for all this nation’s people,” the speech says.
The remarks include an indirect reference to the plight of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority not granted citizenship. Only Myanmar can define its citizens, but Obama’s speech holds up the U.S. as a model.
“I say this because my own country, and my own life, have taught me this,” Obama says in the excerpts. “We have tasted the bitterness of civil war and segregation, but our history shows us that hatred in the human heart can recede, and the lines between races and tribe fade away.”
Obama’s six-hour visit to Myanmar, also known as Burma, was expected to include meetings with Thein Sein and Suu Kyi.
Obama planned to praise the iconic dissident, now a member of parliament and leader of the opposition party, for her “fierce dignity.”
“She proved that no human being can truly be imprisoned if hope burns in your heart,” he says, according to the excerpts.
Obama planned to highlight the reforms — recognition of Suu Kyi’s party, release of some political prisoners, a ban on forced labor and a series of cease-fires that halted ethnic violence in some areas.
Obama suggested that his policies toward Myanmar, which opened diplomatic engagement after years of being cut off from the U.S., were at least partly responsible for the changes. And he sought to use Myanmar as a validation of his engagement strategy elsewhere.
“When I took office as president, I sent a message to those governments who ruled by fear: ‘We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist,’” the excerpts say. “So today, I have come to keep my promise, and extend the hand of friendship. America now has an ambassador in Rangoon, sanctions have been eased, and we will help rebuild an economy that can offer opportunity for its people, and serve as an engine of growth for the world.”
Myanmar is rich in rubber, timber and other potential exports. It also stands to play a key role in Obama’s effort to keep China’s influence in the region in check.
The visit to Myanmar is part of a three-day tour of Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia, a trip aimed at drawing attention to Obama’s so-called pivot to Asia
From the L.A. Times