Eight years and three months in a Myanmar jail did nothing to soften, let alone change, U Wirathu, the notorious monk who has become the face of right-wing Buddhist nationalism in the country.
While he has a quick and infectious grin, his expression becomes serious and his eyes blaze when he speaks of serious matters ― like how Muslims are a threat to Buddhism and his role is to protect the faith.
And he speaks with utter conviction, impervious to any challenge to his logic.
U Wirathu remains convinced that Islam will eventually take over Myanmar if Buddhists are complacent. The Straits TimesU Wirathu remains convinced that Islam will eventually take over Myanmar if Buddhists are complacent. (The Straits Times)
Ordained as a novice at the age of 13, the short cherubic-faced monk, now 47, got involved in the Buddhist right-wing movement called 969 in 2001.
Two years later, he was jailed for 25 years for his inflammatory sermons instigating anti-Muslim violence.
But along with several other political prisoners, he was released in 2010 ― and took to the Internet and social media to amplify his convictions.
Today, U ― U means Mr. in Burmese ― Wirathu has more than 2,000 monks at his monastery in Mandalay, Myanmar’s second- largest city.
Last week, he met The Straits Times in a nondescript house on the outskirts of Yangon that belongs to one of his supporters.
Sitting at a round table with a handful of people, in the simple living room lined with heavy wooden furniture and a giant refrigerator, he said with a quick grin: “You can ask whatever you want, just as long as you report things as they are.”
You have quite a reputation, I told him.
Time magazine put his face on its cover in 2013, calling him “The Face of Buddhist Terror” and sparking angry protests against the magazine from his followers.
When reminded of that, he laughed as he fiddled with his Samsung Galaxy SII, putting it on record mode.
To one side, a light on a video camera on a tripod glowed red as it recorded the interview.
A photographer hovered about, taking pictures of us. A second mobile phone rang every five minutes, but he ignored it.
“I’m proud of my reputation,” he said through a translator.
“The problem is, internationally, they make me look bad, like a terrorist or a racist.
“But I am not a bad person who hates another race. My intention is to protect the Buddhist religion.”
He had just returned from a visit to Rakhine state, Myanmar’s impoverished western-most corner abutting Bangladesh, the scene of Muslim-Buddhist conflict that has seen scores killed and tens of thousands of minority Muslims driven from their homes in attacks in 2012 by Rakhine Buddhists.
He often travels to deliver sermons around the country, warning about what he considers an existential threat to Buddhists from Islam.
Critics and analysts accuse him of laying the groundwork for anti-Muslim violence, which in 2012 and 2013 erupted in several places across Myanmar. Some other prominent monks disapprove of him.
Though a majority in northern Rakhine state, Muslims are a small minority of possibly up to 8 percent in overwhelmingly Buddhist Myanmar.
There has been occasional anti-Muslim violence, but there is also a history of peaceful coexistence.
But U Wirathu remains convinced that Islam will eventually take over the country if Buddhists are complacent. He backs controversial new Bills that restrict interfaith marriage.
U Wirathu does not rant; he speaks in a firm and measured tone. The media sees things with one eye closed, he insisted.
“You say a small percentage of Myanmar is Muslim,” he shot at me.
“Go to the police stations anywhere in Myanmar; it is mostly the Muslims who rape women. When a Muslim marries a Buddhist woman, she is made to stamp on an image of the Buddha.
“When I know about this, I say it because it is the truth. Some people get the wrong message, they think I am creating the violence. But I am just telling the truth.”
But he added: “I want to punish only those who are guilty, not other Muslims.”
Pulling out a DVD player, he inserts a disk that shows mobile phone footage of a Rohingya Muslim mob stoning and setting fire to houses in Maungdaw in Rakhine state in 2012.
Hindus and Christians ― Myanmar’s other minorities ― did not create problems, he said. “But Muslims only think about how to insult other religions.”
The anti-Muslim riots he is accused of fuelling have usually followed a similar pattern. They start with a seemingly petty quarrel, or an accusation of rape ― in at least one case proven false, but only after the deadly aftermath ― directed against Muslims.
The news spreads like wildfire on social media.
Seemingly organized mobs of Buddhists then descend on Muslim communities, razing whole neighborhoods and slaughtering entire Muslim families, including children.
This has drawn outrage from radical Islamic groups overseas, and raised fears among analysts of intensifying violence.
There are also allegations that the monk is backed by shadowy, powerful old-style hardliners opposed to liberal democracy and using nationalism as a weapon.
While he rejects any allegation of links with Myanmar politicians, he has established international links. Late last year, he traveled to Sri Lanka to speak at a conference organized by the island nation’s Sinhala Buddhist right-wing group, the Bodu Bala Sena.
In January, the headline-grabbing monk went a step further.
He called the United Nations’ special rapporteur on human rights for Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, a “whore” after she spoke out for the rights of the minority Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state, eliciting a strong complaint from the U.N.
Local Buddhist Rakhines, and much of the Myanmar public including the government itself, insist the Rohingya are illegal Bengali immigrants from Bangladesh.
The term Rohingya itself is a politically loaded red flag to Buddhist nationalists.
Nevertheless, wasn’t it impolite for him, a Buddhist monk ― or anyone for that matter ― to call Yanghee Lee a “whore,” I asked.
“She is an agent working for the Bengalis,” he said.
“She is trying to get the 1982 citizenship law amended so all the Bengalis can become citizens. She is a diplomat for the U.N. She should not be lobbying for the Muslims, for the Bengalis.”
“Next time, I’ll throw a shoe at her,” he said.
By Nirmal Ghosh
(The Straits Times)