The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘I am proud to be called a radical Buddhist’: More Burmese embracing anti-Muslim violence

Extremist  Ashin Wirathu speaks with fellow monks during a national Buddhist clergy assembly in Hmawbi, Burma. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)

Members of Burma's Buddhist majority, including some of its much-respected monks, are increasingly persecuting the country's long-suffering Muslim minority and adopting an ideology that encourages religious violence. It seems a far way from the Buddhism typically associated with stoic monks and the  Lama – who has condemned the violence – and more akin to the sectarian extremism prevalent in troubled corners of the Middle East. The violence has already left nearly 250 Burmese Muslim civilians dead, forced 150,000 from their homes and is getting worse.

"You can be full of kindness and love, but you cannot sleep next to a mad dog," Ashin Wirathu, a spiritual leader of the movement and very popular figure in Burma, said of the country's Muslims, whom he called "the enemy." He told the New York Times, "I am proud to be called a radical Buddhist."

Wirathu calls himself "the Burmese bin Laden" and was recently labeled on the cover of Time magazine as "the face of Burmese terror." A prominent Burmese human rights activist, after a lifetime of fighting government oppression, now warns that Wirathu's movement is promoting an ideology akin to neo-Nazism.

Already, the movement has expanded beyond this one self-styled radical Buddhist monk. It's now expanding across Burma (also known as Myanmar) according to the Times article. The anti-Muslim sentiment has spread with alarming speed over just the last year, as Burma – which is finally opening up after years of military dictatorship – loosened its strict speech laws. It has prompted boycotts and sermons that can sound an awful lot like calls for violence against Muslims. Monasteries associated with the movement have enrolled 60,000 Burmese children into Sunday school programs.

By far the worst attack so far was in late March in the central Burmese city of Meiktila. Tellingly, the attack was not let by a single leader or religious figure but carried out by mobs of Buddhists, a worrying sign that Wirathu's violent ideas may have taken hold in the city. A minor dispute at an outdoor jewelry stall between a Buddhist customer and a Muslim vendor escalated rapidly out of control. Buddhist rioters razed entire Muslim neighborhoods, burned several civilians alive and killed up to 200 more Muslims until, after three long days in which the army was conspicuously absent, troops intervened to stop the killing.

Here, from Human Rights Watch, is a set of before-and-after satellite images of one of the neighborhoods attacked, where Buddhist mobs destroyed a staggering 442 Muslim homes.

Heightening the fear is that none of Burma's leaders has stepped in to end the bloodshed. The military rulers, though they once jailed Wirathu, have held back, perhaps reluctant to risk the backlash at a time when they are willingly abandoning much of their power.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the longtime democracy activist who became an international cause as a political prisoner, is so beloved in Burma that she may well become its first democratically elected president. But the Nobel Prize winner has also failed to fully condemn the violence. This has been typically seen as a political choice, meant to avoid angering too many Burmese voters if she wants to maintain national support. As the Economist points out, many Burmese were angered when Suu Kyi criticized a draconian new law that forbids some Burmese Muslims from having more than two children.

Unchecked, though, Burma's self-declared radical Buddhists may show no interest in ending their campaign against the country's Muslim minority.