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Militant monks rabble-rousing in Myanmar

By Jeff Kingston

February 22, 2015

With the people of Myanmar heading to the polls later this year, there are troubling signs that some extremists are intent on stirring up trouble.

Last month, one such extremist held a rally in Yangon. Ashin Wirathu gave a vitriolic speech that attacked U.N. human rights envoy Yanghee Lee.

(Photo: DVB)

“Don’t assume you are a respectable person, just because you have a position in the U.N. In our country, you are just a whore,” he said. “If you are so willing, you may offer your arse to the kalar [a racist term meaning 'blacks' that is commonly used to denigrate Muslims in Myanmar]. But you will never sell off our Arakan State!” Remarkably, Wirathu is a monk.

This notorious monk has a history of instigating violence against Myanmar’s Muslim minority and is a bigoted rabble-rouser who allegedly has ties to “dark forces” that are eager to stir up trouble. He served an almost decade-long jail term for inciting violence in the past, but is apparently popular as recordings of his speeches are widely available and he attracts large audiences. On the day of his U.N.-bashing, he marched through Yangon with about 500 supporters, in a nation where such large demonstrations usually require a police permit.

Alas, Wirathu is the poster child for hate speech in Myanmar, spewing his invective and heartily backing controversial new legislation that aims to ban Buddhist women from marrying Muslims. Non-Buddhist men would have to convert to Buddhism before marrying a Buddhist woman, get consent from the bride’s parents or guardians, and only then could local officials register the marriage. Failure to comply could be penalized by imprisonment and/or confiscation of assets. Not only does this deny Muslim men freedom of religion, it also infringes on the rights of Buddhist women. It weakens women’s rights and gives parents or guardians control over the most intimate and important decision many will make in their lives.

This ban on interfaith marriage comes against the backdrop of a significant rise in anti-Muslim violence in recent years. At issue is whether Muslim families in the western state of Rakhine (formerly Arakan) are legitimate citizens of Myanmar, with all the rights that entails, or illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh. The problem of the Rohingya is hotly debated and complicated, but it does seem that many of these Muslim families have been living in the country for several generations and are not recent arrivals. Undoubtedly, though, some of them are and dealing with them has provided a pretext for more draconian state treatment of all Muslims in the area, sparking violence against them, in some cases instigated by monks.

So what is with these militant monks? Certainly they are forcing us to reconsider the stereotype of monks as sutra-reading lotus-eaters dedicated to mindfulness and detachment through quiet meditation. The firebrand extremists are wolves in saffron robes, betraying their faith and urging others to hate and, in extreme cases, engage in acts of violence.

In 2007, several weeks after the Saffron Revolution — when security forces mowed down monks on the streets of Yangon — I was in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine, and met some monks who had been involved in the anti-government demonstrations. They asked me why the U.S. didn’t launch airstrikes against the generals in Naypidaw, their dystopian capital built in the middle of nowhere. This is not what I expected from monks, but in scenic Mrauk U, a few hours riverboat ride away, I met other monks with the same question. In both places, anti-government invective was laced with nasty comments about Rohingya and Muslims. It was my first inkling that something was amiss.

Wirathu leads the 969 Movement, which promotes boycotts of local Indian or Chinese businesses, exploiting the widespread frustration among people living close to the edge. It is not a big leap from a boycott to some incident that can spark the kindling of discontent that leads to riots, deaths, burning and looting. By inflaming communal tensions and wreaking havoc, Buddhist militants have much to answer for but they enjoy impunity because security forces have not been even-handed.

Wirathu’s jingoistic rhetoric whips crowds into a frenzy, promoting a Buddhist nationalism that taps into the miseries of endemic poverty and offers a handy target. He wants to “save” Buddhist wombs from nefarious Muslims who threaten to overwhelm the demographic balance with their large families. It appears that his campaign is politically motivated as Wirathu is also linked to the government and those who engage in dirty tricks to weaken the election prospects of Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD).

Instigating communal turmoil underscores the need for a robust role by security forces in keeping the peace, thereby playing to the strength of the current government dominated by ex-military officers. They are desperate because everyone is predicting an NLD landslide. Thus a more devious aspect of this campaign is to maneuver Suu Kyi into the position of appearing overly solicitous toward the vilified Rohingya, thus “betraying” the Buddhist majority. Meanwhile, opposing the marriage law would mean she is not protecting “our” women from “them.”

Mindful of this insidious strategy, Suu Kyi must walk a tightrope in ways that frustrate her overseas backers who want her to stand up for the Rohingya. If forecasts are accurate, however, it appears that very few Buddhists are buying into this ruse and her NLD will coast to victory if the elections are free and fair. Will they be?

Curiously, on Feb. 11 the president’s office effectively revoked the voting rights of 2 million people only a few days after a massive majority in parliament granted suffrage to these same holders of temporary identity cards; 1.3 million of them are Muslim Rohingya. This is probably the least of Rohingya worries, but it does underscore how they have become political pawns.

So why was Wirathu lashing out at the U.N.? Because it is calling for Myanmar to grant citizenship to Rohingya born in the country. Lee, the target of Wirathu’s vile tirade, replied with dignity.

“Fundamental rights are not hierarchical — they aren’t conditional upon one another. They’re inalienable,” she said.

Perhaps so, but not if the mad monk and his masters get their way.

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.

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