The violence against Myanmar’s Rohingyas is nothing new. For more than three years, the media has reported about attacks and hate speech against the Muslim minority and criticized Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League for Democracy and Nobel Peace Prize-winner, for her silence on what the UN has deemed “the fastest-growing refugee emergency in the world today”.
However, Aung San Suu Kyi is not the only leader the world should look at in connection with the rohingya ethnic cleansing in Myanmar – even since 2014, international media have had their eyes on the Buddhist monk Ashin Wirathu from Mandalay, who has been described by, for instance, The Guardian and Time as a driving force of the violence against Myanmar’s Rohingyas.
He leads a monastery in Mandalay, the second-largest city in Myanmar and the home of more than 2500 Buddhist monks. Already in 2014, AJ+ explained how Wirathu preaches hatred against the Muslims in Myanmar and how his popularity increased along with his radicalism.
Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. Photo: Jordi Bernabeu Farrús
“Protecting” his country
Wirathu himself claims to merely protect his country.
“I am defending my loved one,” he said in an article from The Guardian in May this year. ”Like you would defend your loved one. I am only warning people about Muslims. Consider it like if you had a dog, that would bark at strangers coming to your house – it is to warn you. I am like that dog. I bark.”
And he barks loudly. A quick google-search on his name generates loads of news articles connecting him to the violence against the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.
However, there are also voices claiming that these depictions of him are false. A website supporting his anti-Muslim 969 Movement – however, admitting to have no official connection to Ashin Wirathu or the Movement itself – rejects Time Magazine’s description of Wirathu as “the face of Buddhist terror” and describes him as treating “all people with fairness” and as someone who has started “campaigns to support Buddhists in his country and around the globe.”
The power of social media
On Facebook, several pages connected to Ashin Wirathu appears when one types in his name. Which one is his official site is hard to tell but several are fairly popular and in favor of the openly anti-Muslim monk. One page shares, for instance, articles criticizing the Western media’s discourse on him and the violence in Myanmar. The page has 9345 likes and 9525 followers. Another one with the name Wira Thu has even more followers; 413,419,and has been active as recently as this September. Even for readers who cannot read Burmese, pictures with the text “No Rohingya in Myanmar” speak for themselves.
So, even if Wirathu denies encouraging the violence against the Rohingyas, he is clearly an influential leader, who openly accuses the Muslim population of Myanmar of imposing a threat to the country and aiming to “build up an islamic state.”
Even though only 5 percent of Myanmar’s 54 million people are Muslim, people listen to Wirathu.
In a video reportage from AJ+, another Buddhist monk admits that “every race has good and bad people. Those who use violence and those who don’t.” However, he adds: “But Muslims are mostly violent.”
Like many others, he believes that Wirathu will protect Myanmar from the Muslims.
However, there are also Buddhist who do not support Wirathu’s aggressive rhetorics. Another monk from Mandalay takes his distance from the so-called “the face of Buddhist terror” but he is still worried what Wirathu and other people’s hate speech against Muslims in Myanmar can lead to: “If there are those who spread rumours, those of unsound minds would be inspired to act rash without thinking,” he explains to AJ+.
But despite this critique, Wirathu and his hateful words apparently hold a big group of monks and other Buddhists in a tight grip consequently inflaming the ethnic conflict in Myanmar.
By Ida Scharla Løjmand
AK Rockefeller, CC BY-SA 2.0
Jordi Bernabeu Farrús, CC BY 2.0