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Firebrand monk Wirathu travels to Myanmar's troubled Rakhine State

Myanmar's firebrand Buddhist monk Wirathu sits in a supporter's home during a Reuters interview in Yangon, Myanmar in this file photo dated October 4, 2015. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

By Wa Lone
May 3, 2017

YANGON -- A Myanmar Buddhist monk renowned for his anti-Muslim sermons traveled to Rakhine State on Wednesday, an official said, sparking concern over religious tension in the region, where more than one million Rohingya Muslims live.

Wirathu - who once called himself the "Burmese bin Laden" - would visit the Muslim-majority northern part of the western state, said Police Colonel Nyan Win Oo of Maungdaw district police.

Police would provide security for the monk, Nyan Win Oo said, adding he was unaware of the reason for Wirathu's visit.

"He will go to ethnic villages and will be here for two or three days," he said, referring to settlements where non-Muslims live. 

The Rohingya are not considered one of Myanmar's indigenous ethnic groups and are denied citizenship. They are instead regarded as illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh.

An estimated 75,000 Rohingya fled across the border to Bangladesh from the Maungdaw area during a recent crackdown by Myanmar security forces in response to militant attacks on border posts.

The insurgents - who say they are fighting for Rohingya rights - killed nine policemen on Oct. 9, igniting the biggest crisis of national leader Aung San Suu Kyi's first year in power. 

Soldiers and police stand accused of killings and gang rapes during the counterinsurgency operation that followed.

Several thousand non-Muslims, including members of the Buddhist Rakhine ethnic group, were also displaced by the unrest.


Wirathu, once jailed by Myanmar's former military regime, rose to prominence after the country began a transition to democracy in 2011, uncorking long-suppressed ethnic and religious tensions.

Clashes between Rohingya and Rakhine Buddhists in 2012 displaced about 140,000 people, mostly from the Muslim minority.

As violence and hate speech against Muslims spread to other parts of the country - where Muslims who are not Rohingya live among the Buddhist majority - Wirathu delivered sermons and preached on Facebook, urging Buddhists to boycott Muslim business and shun interfaith marriages.

He has continued to travel around the country despite Myanmar's highest religious authority in March barring him from preaching. Wirathu reacted to his silencing by posting online photographs of himself with his mouth taped over. 

Although the recent conflict in northern Rakhine has abated in recent weeks, tensions remain high and Rohingya residents told Reuters late last month they feared traveling beyond their villages in case they encounter military patrols.

A Muslim community leader in northern Rakhine told Reuters that after hearing of Wirathu's visit, elders met and decided to issue a warning through religious networks.

“We are concerned about his trip because he always spreads hate of Muslims," said the leader, who declined to be identified for fear of reprisals.

"We informed our people to avoid any confrontation in their communication with non-Muslim people, and to be aware and not to panic."

(Writing by Simon Lewis; Editing by Robert Birsel)

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