The recent flood of Rohingya refugees streaming out of Burma at the hands of ruthless smugglers, who imprison them in death camps or leave them stranded on ramshackle ships, has onlookers questioning what could drive people to such desperate measures.
Part of the answer, human rights activists say, is Ashin Wirathu, a Buddhist monk who is accused of inciting waves of violence against a group frequently called “one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.”
“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, director of the International State Crime Initiative at Queen Mary University of London and author of a forthcoming report on Burma, 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.”
By all appearances, Wirathu seems an unlikely leader of sectarian violence. He speaks in soft, measured tones, clasping his hands thoughtfully. Like all Burmese Buddhist monks, his head is shaved and he is draped in a simple saffron robe. He teaches at a quiet and dimly lit monastery in Mandalay where monks kneel in study or prayer and flowers and images of religious figures decorate the walls. It’s every bit the Western stereotype of Buddhist tranquility.
But the exterior of the monastery is gruesome, coated with propaganda posters depicting violence he claims has been perpetrated by the Rohingya, Burma’s Muslim ethnic minority: collapsed temples and blood-streaked bodies.
“These pictures are here to protect our religion and our national interest,” the monk calmly explained to a BBC reporter in a 2013 documentary. “If we do not protect our own people we will become weak, and we will face more mass killings of this kind when they grow to outnumber us.”
“Muslims are only well behaved when they are weak,” he adds, contemplating another poster. “When they are strong they are like a wolf or a jackal, in large packs they hunt down other animals.”
Wirathu is the leader of Burma’s 969 movement, a radical nationalist group that’s been accused of inciting violence against the Rohingya. Rights activists have called him a neo-Nazi and Time ran a 2013 profile of him under the headline “The Face of Buddhist Terror.” In that article, Time said he had “taken the title of ‘the Burmese bin Laden.'” Wirathu contested the quote, but it was too late. The moniker stuck.
The Rohingya, who live mostly in Burma’s western Rakhine State, have been persecuted long before Wirathu arrived on the scene. Despite the fact that many Rohingya have been in the country for generations, the Burmese government considers them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh — sectarians like Wirathu often refer to them derogatorily as “Bengalis.” The Rohingya have been denied Burmese citizenship since 1982.
But their situation deteriorated drastically in 2012, when clashes broke out between the Rohingya and Rankhine Buddhists. With much of the state in shambles, the government quickly moved to put Rohingya in internally displaced person camps — which critics say are more like concentration camps. The following year, violence against Burmese Muslims spilled beyond Rankhine into the rest of the country — thousands more people were displaced, hundreds of homes and businesses destroyed, and scores killed, including 20 students who were massacred at an Islamic school. Those who could escape, did. The United Nations estimates that 120,000 Rohingya have fled the country during the past three years.
In 2003, Wirathu was imprisoned by Burma’s military junta — who he says defrocked him and tortured him in jail. But at the same time that the conflicts between Burma’s Buddhists and the Rohingya began to escalate, Wirathu was released as part of a 2012 general amnesty. He began traveling the country, giving sermons and distributing DVDs that Rangoon-based writer Alex Bookbinder said in the Atlantic “would not be out of place at the Nuremberg rallies.”
“You can be full of kindness and love, but you cannot sleep next to a mad dog,” he said of Muslims at a 2013 sermon reported by the New York Times. Later, to reporters, he added, “I am proud to be called a radical Buddhist.”
A catchy pop tune titled “Song to Whip Up Religious Blood” is often played at 969 rallies. The movement is named for three digits that monks say symbolize the virtues of the Buddha, Buddhist practices and the Buddhist community, but its theme song is far from devotional. The lyrics reference people who “live in our land, drink our water, and are ungrateful to us,” according to the Times. And the chorus, “We will build a fence with our bones if necessary,” is repeated over and over again.
Wirathu claims that his movement is not responsible for the violence against the Rohingya. But he does repeatedly insist that Muslims — whom he often calls “kalars,” a derogatory term roughly equivalent to the N-word — need to be kept in their place. He calls for boycotts of Muslim-owned businesses, warns Buddhists to protect their women from Muslim rapists and was a vocal backer of a law restricting marriages between Buddhists and Muslims. And outbreaks of violence often coincide with Wirathu’s speeches or posts on the 969 Facebook page, the U.S.-based rights group Justice Trust said.
“The fact that all these episodes showed the same recurrent pattern — including speaking tours by Wirathu … just before the outbreak of violence — indicates a deliberate strategy to foment such violence,” the group wrote in a March report.
In light of all this, Osama bin Laden isn’t the only person Wirathu gets compared to. Muang Zarni, a Burmese democracy activist based in London, said that Wirathu’s movement against Muslims resembles Hitler’s rhetoric against the Jews in Nazi Germany.
“Their intent is genocidal in the sense that the Muslims of Burma — all of them, including the ethnically Burmese — are considered leeches in our society the way the Jews were considered leeches and bloodsuckers during the Third Reich when Nazism was taking root,” he told Vice in 2013.
But inside Burma, Wirathu has few vocal critics. Many speculate that the Burmese government supports the radical monk in hopes that his rhetoric will distract Burmese citizens from the country’s other pressing issues and give a nationalist boost to the ruling party ahead of this year’s election. Even celebrated democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi has offered only muted criticism of the violence, earning her condemnation from both sides.
“I think she has seriously miscalculated her response to anti-Muslim violence in Burma,” Mark Farmaner, director of Burma Campaign UK, told GQ. “She has ended up with the worst of both worlds. On the one hand, she hasn’t spoken up for an oppressed and endangered minority, on the other hand, she’s still being attacked by the 969 movement and losing support because there remains a perception that she’s friendly to Muslims.”
The Dalai Lama has condemned Burma’s anti-Muslim violence, asserting in a 2013 speech at the University of Maryland that conflict serves political purposes, not spiritual ones. “Really, killing people in the name of religion is unthinkable,” he said, according to Reuters.
For his part, Wirathu rejects the allegations that he is a bad Buddhist, a terrorist or a government pawn. In 2013, when a reporter for GQ asked him about his connection to the military, he ended the interview. When Time published its 2013 profile comparing him to bin Laden, he wrote the reporter a bizarre message lamenting, “You are not a gentle lady as I thought but of the same flock with extremist Kalars.” He has accused the media of being controlled by Muslims and purposefully framing him as a hatemonger.
“Look at my face,” he told the Los Angeles Times recently. “I don’t have any hatred at all.”
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