Chatting with Myanmar’s Buddhist “Terrorist”

“Do I look like a terrorist?” the orange-robed monk asked me, confident that I would see the question as absurd.

The monk, Ashin Wirathu, had been portrayed on the cover of Time magazine’s international edition over the caption, “the face of Buddhist terror.” time-magazine-coverHe was credited with inciting angry Buddhists in Myanmar to riot against the Muslim minority, burning mosques and Muslim-owned shops and houses, and attacking Muslims who dared to challenge them. In 2013 and 2014, scores were killed and thousands were displaced from their homes. In the town of Meiktila, a Buddhist mob surrounded a Muslim man and set him on fire.

Wirathu, who was blamed for fanning the flames of ethnic hatred, is the most well-known spokesman for the “969 Movement”—named after the nine special attributes of the Buddha, the six distinctive features of his teachings, and the nine characteristics of monks—which was formed to defend the purity of Burmese Buddhist culture against its adulteration from outside influences, primarily Muslim. Hence it was widely regarded as an anti-Islamic hate movement.

When I talked with Wirathu recently in his comfortable office in the Ma Soe Yein monastery in the central Burmese city of Mandalay he was prepared to defend himself against the terrorism label.

Buddhism is all about peace, he told me. “If we support Buddhism we are creating peace in the world,” he said repeatedly. So far, nothing terrorist about that.

His monastic office radiated spiritual authority. Though Wirathu is only one of 14 senior monks on the governing body of the 2500-man monastic complex, he clearly occupied a leading position within it. Only the framed pictures on his wall—mostly newspaper clippings and pictures of himself—were indications of his charismatic, rabble-rousing reputation.

Though our conversation began cheerfully, Wirathu’s demeanor darkened when the conversation shifted to the vulnerability of Myanmar’s Buddhist culture to attacks from outside. “We have to protect our people,” he said, frowning.

When asked, he implied that there were a host of people out to destroy Buddhism, and I kept pressing him to tell me whom they were.

“Muslims,” he said, finally. Or more precisely, “Islamic extremists,” as he called them, people who denigrated Buddhism. Not all Muslims were extremists, he said, though most were under their influence, so virtually all Muslims in Myanmar were suspect.

I asked him for examples of how the tiny Muslim minority in Myanmar—some four percent of the population—could possibly threaten the Buddhist majority. The first thing that came to his mind was the case of Muslim men wanting to marry Buddhist women. After marrying them, he said, the Muslim men would force their wives to convert to Islam and step on statues of the Buddha. It was not clear how frequently he thought this sort of thing happened. When I asked others in Mandalay they could only think of a handful of cases of ethnic intermarriage.

Wirathu also thought that Muslims were secretive, since their mosques were not open to everyone. (When I mentioned this to a local Muslim leader, he said that the mosques were closed solely to prevent people from coming inside with their shoes on and desecrating the worship space.)

Then Wirathu warmed up to his main concern, which was the penchant of “Islamic extremists” for violence, and their desire to rule the world. He cited the atrocities of groups such as al Qaeda and ISIS as examples. He also thought that their numbers were greatly expanding in Myanmar through immigration and having relatively larger families, and that this was a purposeful design to dilute the purity of Buddhist culture in the country and eventually take control.

“They are trying to transform Myanmar into a Muslim state,” Wirathu said. He claimed that this was the reason that he and the 969 movement are trying to protect Burmese Buddhism from what he regards as a kind of cultural annihilation.

Wirathu insisted that his only role was to preach the truth. Though his fiery sermons have been reported as inciting violence, Wirathu disassociated himself from such acts, saying that his own followers were not under his control. He told me that Buddhists had the right “to defend themselves” and if at that time they “inflict injury,” then that can be excused. Thus violence could be justified in a context of defense. But Buddhist ethics, he said, would not allow the faithful to intend to be violent, since, he again reminded me, Buddhism is all about peace.

Representatives of the United Nations’ Commission on Human Rights, however, have identified Wirathu as one of the main figures in Myanmar’s pattern of human rights abuse against Muslims, particularly the Rohingya who live in the northern portion of Rakhine province adjacent to Bangladesh. Though the Rohingya people claim to have lived in the region for centuries, many Burmese regard them as aliens, and the most recent government census refused to let them identify themselves on the rolls as Rohingya rather than Bengalis. Wirathu has been outspoken in his insistence that the Rohingya are not legitimately native to the country, but are interlopers.

According to Wirathu, rich Muslim countries have bought off the UN, and its human rights accusations were part of a Muslim plot. “It is not the United Nations,” Wirathu told me, “but the United Muslim Nations.” Wirathu claimed that President Obama was also duped by these influences, and this is the reason why he spoke about the rights of Rohingya people in his recent visit to the country.

The conspiracy was even broader, Wirathu said, since the world’s news media were also under control of Islamic extremists. In fact, he claimed, it was the media that was in league with terrorists by branding him and other outspoken Buddhist leaders as the foe, as Time had done.

The other well-known Buddhist activist in the region was Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara, the leader of the Bodu Bala Sena movement in Sri Lanka, which Time, Economist, and other international news media have also criticized. Much like Wirathu, he has railed against the imagined threat of a small Muslim minority in his country, and like Wirathu was accused of inciting riots against it.

I asked Wirathu if he and the BBS were working together, and he admitted that he had met with Gnanasara, but insisted that their agendas were separate. Nonetheless, a number of news reports claim that Wirathu’s 969 and Gnanasaara’s BBS movements are in league, and there are reports that Wirathu has been in contact with Buddhist monks from Thailand’s southern border with Malaysia, where pitched battles have been taking place between Buddhists and the Muslim majority in that locale.

Wirathu said it wasn’t just Buddhists who were concerned about Islamic extremists. He said that his fears were shared by some Muslims, and gave the name of a leader of the Muslim community in Mandalay who he said was in agreement with him. Later that day I talked with the Muslim leader, and he said that of course he was concerned about al Qaeda and ISIS worldwide, but that the Muslims in Myanmar were of no threat to anyone. He implied that Wirathu was playing into the hands of politicians who wanted to use the Muslim scare for political purposes.

This was an analysis that I had heard from others in Myanmar, including journalists and political leaders. The ruling party had undertaken a great risk to their power by opening the government to a greater degree of democratic rule. Even though the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party swept the 2012 elections, its leaders were apprehensive about the 2015 elections and the likely candidacy of Nobel Prize-winning Burmese leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. Some thought that by creating an artificial threat the military’s party would be seen as strong defenders of the nation, and they would gain in the upcoming elections as a result.

Wirathu has been ranting against Muslims for some time and in 2003 was put in prison for inciting violence against them. He was released in 2010, about the time of the democratic reforms, so some have speculated that his release was motivated by political considerations, like unleashing a tiger. But whether or not Wirathu was a pawn in this political calculation—and whether he was aware of it, if so—is unclear.

What is apparent is that he has convinced himself, and perhaps his angry following, that there has been a great but hidden struggle going on behind the quiet Buddhist civility and lush tropical landscape of the ancient Burma that is now the rapidly economically developing Myanmar. It is a battle between good and evil, between Buddhist morality and the Muslim hordes he imagines to be poised to conquer Burma’s soul. And Wirathu would like to be its savior.

The interview was conducted with the translation assistance of Thein Toe Win.

24 Comments

  • elizavieta@embarqmail.net' eliza says:

    I read that Myanmar muslims were: 1. being supported by aggressive muslims from elsewhere, 2. angering the locals by setting up protection rackets – pay us or we’ll burn down your business
    3. halal rackets – butchers must pay a fee to imams.
    4. annoying people with the call to prayer
    5. building huge mosques with outside money.
    I don’t recall seeing a complaint that they groom girls, but in Myanmar muslims are doing things to upset the locals.

  • elizavieta@embarqmail.net' eliza says:

    Also – shoes in the mosque my foot. They are cursing the kuffar and planning strategies there, while maintaining a terrorist motel. Islam as presently run by its imams, is not a benign thing for its host communities.

  • dkeane123@comcast.net' DKeane123 says:

    He keeps talking about the purity of Buddhist culture and appears to use rumor and innuendo to cast all Muslims as “less than”, which would allow people to justify burning mosques and Muslim businesses. This dude has shades of Germany in the early 30’s.

    Also, how can the media be controlled by both Muslims and also Jews? When you view magic as an underlying force in the world, this is the type of thinking you get.

  • dkeane123@comcast.net' DKeane123 says:

    Please cite your reference – where did you read about these “Aggressive Muslims”? Sounds a lot like trumped up innuendo.

  • elizavieta@embarqmail.net' eliza says:

    I got interested in this question some years ago. I guess i should start writing down my references. I would see posts such as this, then Myanmar people would start commenting, describing the reasons why muslims are unpopular there. I try to go to sources where the people actually involved are commenting.

    Outside money builds huge mosques and then they scream their little message all day. Storekeepers and butchers are threatened.

  • truktyre@hotmail.com' Craptacular says:

    Other than the second reason, which is probably against the laws there, those are very similar to the catholic and mormon playbook:

    1. supported by “aggressive” members in other countries…check
    2. this smacks of organized crime, not necessarily a religious issue
    3. 10% tithing covers this…check
    4. annoying people with sunday bells, missionaries knocking on doors, etc….check
    5. building temples/churches with outside money…check

    So I am not understanding why the muslims are getting singled out for these shenanigans. These are standard operating procedures for any cult, uh…I mean religion.

  • truktyre@hotmail.com' Craptacular says:

    I also noticed the “purity” comments, which are always a red flag to me. I was not disappointed when I found out what was meant by purity…interfaith marriages and families, women forced into another religion, and fears that the muslim population will grow from roughly 4% of the population into a majority (that’s a LOT of babies, by the way) in order to take over and make it a muslim country…or whatever Ashin’s fears are.

    But then we read that the powers-that-be seem to be using the monk to further their own agenda.

    Who has ever heard of a political power using religious clergy to push a political agenda? That never happens, does it?

  • dkeane123@comcast.net' DKeane123 says:

    No it doesn’t, because his motives are pure…that would be hilarious if it wasn’t true.

  • elizavieta@embarqmail.net' eliza says:

    So you would welcome a huge screaming mosque in your neighborhood, huh. I am not comparing them to anything, am just noting Myanmar comments.

  • truktyre@hotmail.com' Craptacular says:

    No, I am asking why muslims are getting singled out for doing things other religions do…in case you missed it, I said, “So I am not understanding why the muslims are getting singled out for these shenanigans” right there, above your latest reply.

    Perhaps the christians keep a lower profile in Myanmar than the muslims, though. You wrote as if you had done some investigating, but perhaps you don’t know, either. It’s ok to say you don’t know, by the way.

  • elizavieta@embarqmail.net' eliza says:

    The muslims are a minority there, but they have the backing of Saudis and other wealth, just as the muslims here do. Huge mosques are built even if there are very few muslims in the area.

    Cultural annihilation certainly is their aim and their religion.

    If you go to sites where actual muslims and those dealing with them are commenting, it is more of an eye opener than an academic singalong such as this place.

  • kiwate2000-nippon@yahoo.com' Adam Powell says:

    I am of the Sotoshu lineage (a monk for some ten years) and have been involved in Buddhist humanitarian efforts for some while in retirement. If I am to be persuaded of any one truth it is that doctrinaire ideology is contrary to the wellbeing of us all, for it was the Historical One who said, “Check it out, don’t believe it because I said It!” (Paraphrased.) My teachers sit beside me, not above me. They give me teaching advice, not ultimatums. The Sangha as taught by the Historical One was to be an example, not an excathedra body. The Dharma is so old that when someone speaks of the purity of their interpretive representation I resort to the earliest historical record available which is so long after parinirvana no one can say except, “Check it Out”. I do not prostrate myself to a saffron or black robe, I sit beside them in mindfulness and in mindfulness of what the robe wearer offers my mindfulness. Impermanence encompasses us all and our systems of belief so if the Dharma is obscured by another, the Dharma’s truth is still there (think about it, I might suggest). Nor, do I represent myself as the Satori aha? Not at all, just a stumbling Buddhist doing my best to do the Eightfold but doing it miserably because I will still resort to violence to defend the weak and oppressed or the loved, but I will not do so to defend an ideology advocated by the ideological who have apparently forgotten the Check It Out lex parsimoniae. BTW, I was a cop and military medic for some forty five years. Do I have opinions, oh so YES. Wirathu needs to get off his high mule, burn his clippings of his ego and sit down beside us.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    Your tradition sounds so different from what we have here in our churches. Think about it. That must be the nature of religion. There is no point of truth for religions to converge toward, so their only option is to diverge, become radically different in form and tradition as they seek, whatever it is they can seek, but that is not a point of truth that could draw them together.

  • Bluerose61@outlook.com' Carolyn Shadowland says:

    Thank you. Seems to me you got the message, and this monk did not.

  • kiwate2000-nippon@yahoo.com' Adam Powell says:

    I must, unfortunately, find some agreement in your opine. So long as the chosen assert their choseness (sic),Dharma seems to be the farthest aspect of bringing us together in the endeavor of our humanity but rather in the assertion of my choseness (sic) should dominate your choseness (sic)which consequentially separates us from our common blood and aspirations and makes us subject to the whims of the self appointed chosen.. This is as true in some aspects of Buddhism as it is in Christianity, Islam, etc infiinitum. I guess, having been raised Presbyterian, one day I asked after a course in archaic greek my pastor, what you assert isn’t what I’ve just read. It is then that searching, I found someone who said, Check it out, ask me hard questions, we’re both on the same quest. I salute you on your endeavor and wish you my best

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    Check out science. It is on a quest for truth, maybe even ultimate truth, and it has a record of success in the last few centuries. It is what religion longs for, but then so often religion puts it down and declares it’s knowledge superior to science because of divine revelation. Things always decay from there.

    Honest science is also the one thing that can bring different parts of the world and different cultures together in common respect and search of common goals. The answer is right in front of us, but religious tradition goes back thousands of years, so it tends to be blind.

  • elizavieta@embarqmail.net' eliza says:

    Islam is here to replace the kuffar worldly arrangements with islamic banking, law and politics. The kuffar may keep his philosophical religions, if they are pacifist so much the better.

  • kiwate2000-nippon@yahoo.com' Adam Powell says:

    I would, in the main, not disagree with your contention since I hold PhDs ( in Quantum Physics and Molecular Biology) but even there we find fraud and reticence in the scientific community as opinions as hardened as the most religious ideologue. I note your specificity of ‘honest science’ which can be as blind as those who held Pasteur to ridicule, or that leveled against Tomier for his Fornier theorem, until the latter was shown on track. That is the advantage of honest science in that, eventually the accepted model (most specifically in Newtonian respects) is supplanted by the current evidence, altho sometimes it may take twelve years for BMJ to acknowledge that it published a VERY flawed antivaccine study (funded by attorneys for litigants who wished to prove their case against vaccination) or would you be suggesting that Sen. Paul’s opinion is a dishonest advocation.. Forget not, that honest science presents us with alternative utilizations of our discoveries (nuclear power vs nuclear weapons) and that is solely dependent on the morality (often very difficult to determine the subtleties of various arguments pro and con)but yet very dependent on the humans behind the trigger or the syringe To invest confidence in ‘honest science’ is to be as blind as the orthodox fanatic.. It seems, perhaps, you need to define honest science since we are dealing with our perception of that which comprises honest science and its ontological inceptive sequences. After all, Einstein [an aspirant of Spinoza] wanted to know the mind of god, was he an honest scientist? Planck and Higgs were and are clear in their beliefs in god.

    Having done a vetting of your postings I think that we getting into a lot of noise of no value. If I have much of any further value, as you might consider it, I would suggest, perhaps all this outside cerebration is a celebration of a ‘ me ‘not us. My response is that instead of advancing a viewpoint devoid of the human influence one may find the usefulness of ” transmission outside the scriptures;
    No dependence on words and letters;
    Direct pointing to the mind of man;
    Seeing into one’s nature”, or, more to the point, utilizing the Peter and Forrest Gump Principles to ourselves before we apply it to others.
    Honest science is self applied first and foremost. I am not interested in rhetoric , I found that silliness unfortunately very late in my life. Honest dialogue, especially with myself, is foremost.
    So, knowing human propensity to some extent, I proffer this in anticipation of your reply. A samurai comes to a respected Zen Master, to find salvation. The Roshi intentionally insults the samurai, in response the samurai draws his katana, the Roshi responds ‘thus you yourself open the gate to hell”,.
    Now, I mean none other than to apply it to myself. Sometimes in one’s preponderance of personal urination, they do the same in a need to respond in defense of their own outside presentation than the honest introspection . But, I thank you since you have given me much upon which to think.

    My,. have we not flown far off the original topic. But is that not the Indra Net?
    So, I thank you for my further evaluation of my mindfulness. May good fortune and health attend you and yours, genuinely.
    No matter , as the Historical One caveated (sic) CHECK IT OUT, HONESTLY.

  • rdowning94@shaw.ca' RodDowning says:

    Eliza: You’re perpetually bad distortions . . with the one exception that there is more to this conflict. The best synopsis is the International Crisis Group 48-page PDF (http://www.crisisgroup.org/~/media/Files/asia/south-east-asia/burma-myanmar/261-myanmar-the-politics-of-rakhine-state.pdf).

    The conflict involves complex layers going back centuries around, very loosely, this Buddhist-Muslim boundary in Rakine state (& expanded elsewhere in Burma now), and includes cultural, colonial, WWII, and other dynamics including raw politics. Let’s try not to perpetuate stereotypes and ground things n best perspectives.

  • elizavieta@embarqmail.com' eliza says:

    Let’s pay attention to what the people here and now are saying on the ground in question.

    “You’re”? are you participating in the apostrophe crisis?

  • rdowning94@shaw.ca' RodDowning says:

    “apostrophe crisis” – love it! . . . actually the error was an auto-correct – the wording should have been “perpetuating” – sorry, didn’t notice.

    OK, to the topic: First of all my goal is to seek lasting solutions to violence by having all sides find ways that fairly resolve the issues for all.

    The very 1st step is to hear the concerns. While I can’t read minds, it seems that you are trying to give voice to the Buddhist community as you have heard it, and as such it helps with part of that very 1st step.

    So while your voice has been of some value, you have also already encountered some limitations. No one can figure out what part of the Buddhist community you are hearing and voicing. – Are they the wise ones, are they a group who just happens to live right beside the only big mosque in the state [you keep mentioning big mosque, noisy prayer, halal]? Or who? – my point is, how are we to know? How are we to know even whether you know who you are listening to? Do you see the problem, given this highly impersonal Internet?

    Before giving my 2nd point, a brief apology to all, including you, Eliza, since you sound like you ignored the ICG report: Many people may not know who the International Crisis Group is, my mistake not to clarify. ICG is considered one of the world’s highly respected organizations that seeks to find processes to fairly resolve conflicts. I am not part of them – I simply value their perspective in additional to other views as I try to get an overall picture of a hopeful way out of the conflict.

    So, now my 2nd point: given your above comment you seemed to have ignored the report. Yet it spent 4 pages specifically describing the fears and concerns of the Rakhine Buddhist community, as well as the basis for such sentiments. That is incredibly stronger than your 5 or 6 lines.

    So again thank you for giving voice to a perspective that has largely gone unnoticed. But if it were me, I’d take the time to get the full picture in a manner that shows an acceptable way out of this terrible dynamic.

  • elizavieta@embarqmail.com' eliza says:

    Thank you for the info on the International Crisis Group. I wish them luck in their efforts to fairly resolve conflicts. I hope they are not just shuffling paper. Nothing like clean well fed people shuffling paper and making pronouncements while violent loons run amok over various countrysides.

  • kwin2006@gmail.com' Keith Win says:

    Wirathu said “The first thing that came to his mind was the case of Muslim men wanting to marry Buddhist women. After marrying them, he said, the Muslim men would force their wives to convert to Islam and step on statues of the Buddha.” As a young Buddhist living in MM (in the early 90s), I also used to hear of this above rumor. I think it was a common story just to scare children. Lack of education and poverty makes the people of MM gullible to all kinds of rumors passed down by their elders w/o any kind of scientific proof.

  • aravkris2@gmail.com' Arav says:

    Judging from what has happened to the Buddhists of Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia in the hands of Islam, it is quite reasonable that he fears for the Islamization of the country.

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