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The 'Buddhist bin Laden' and Rohingya crisis

Ashin Wirathu, Buddhist monk and leader of the 969 movement. (Photo: Reuters)

By Shyamanga Barooah
June 4, 2015

He is 46 years old, the archetypal Buddhist monk - a clean-shaven head, a boyish grin, attired in Buddhist robes and the works. He is Ashin Wirathu, but his critics and detractors call him the "Buddhist bin Laden".

Ashin Wirathu is credited with the wave of nationalism that is sweeping Myanmar with growing force and has been held responsible by critics and human rights groups for the Rohingya boat people crisis. The exodus of the Rohingyas from Myanmar in crowded fishing boats is the latest in the chapter of the brute history of a community victimised by the government of the very country they lived in for generations.

Rohingyas, a minority Muslim group in Myanmar, have been at the receiving end of official and societal censorship - be it citizenship, voting, restrictions on movement, marriage, education and healthcare.

Wirathu, who proudly labels himself a radical Buddhist, was arrested and sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2003 for for his sermons and for leading the militant movement called 969. He was released in 2011 under government amnesty. But Wirathu stuck to his cause against Muslims though YouTube and social media platforms.

In 2012, Wirathu led a rally of monks to promote President Thein Sein's controversial plan to send Rohingya Muslims to a third country. Since then, scores of Rohingyas have been killed in sectarian riots and around 1 lakh have been forced into disease ridden refugee camps in Rakhine state.

The "Face of Buddhist Terror," as Time Magazine called him back in 2013, Wirathu, for almost three decades now, has strongly held the belief that the Muslims have a "master plan" of converting the predominantly Buddhist Myanmar to Islam. He is said to strongly voice his radical views in his speeches and on Facebook.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Wirathu has warned of an impending jihad against Myanmar's Buddhist majority. He is said to have spread rumours of Muslims raping Buddhist women and castigates Buddhists who mingle with Muslims. Wirathu said most Muslims "destroy our country, our people and the Buddhist religion".

Not surprisingly, the government of Myanmar has not been of much help in containing the Buddhist-Rohingya conflict. It is because both Wirathu and the Myanmar government are treading the same path of ethnic cleansing, which neither of them proclaim in the open. 

Wirathu's militant Buddhist nationalism is reportedly fuelled by official propaganda that portrays Rohingyas as Bangladeshis who entered Myanmar illegally and encroached on native land.

"Wirathu plays a central role with his hate speech and the Islamophobia that it creates, given that the Rohingya are surrounded by a hostile community that can be whipped into violence very quickly," Penny Green from the International State Crime Initiative at Queen Mary University of London told the Los Angeles Times.

"Why are these people leaving on boats? Why would people risk certain death on the high seas? Because the existence they have, and the lack of a future, is worse," Green added.

And as the cramped fishing boats lookout to safely lower anchor as the sun sinks into the Andaman Sea, hopes and dreams of hundreds of homeless people float in the watery wilderness.

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