Muslim minority bears brunt in Burma as radical monk stirs sectarian pot

Controversial Buddhist monk Ashin Wirathu has been stoking hatred against Muslims to poisonous effect

In an airy hall decorated with Buddhist motifs, the man considered one of Burma’s most dangerous sits supervising hundreds of novice monks as they sit an exam.

Dressed in maroon-coloured robes, Ashin Wirathu looks younger than he appears in the numerous portraits hanging in another part of the Masoeyin monastery in Mandalay, Burma's second largest city. Other monks in this, one of the country's most famous monasteries, speak reverently of him and try to claim his virulently anti-Muslim rhetoric has been misunderstood. But Burma's Muslims fear Wirathu, seeing him as the figurehead of a radical Buddhist nationalism that has grown stronger and frequently manifests itself in violence against the country's Muslim minority.

Conspiracy theories

As his students pore over their exam papers, Wirathu speaks in a soft voice about what he believes are Muslim efforts to dominate



, despite the fact only some five percent of the country’s 55 million people are Muslim. “This is like a fire and it must be stopped,” he says, as he repeats conspiracy theories similar to those lapped up by his thousands of followers on Facebook and YouTube.

Many believe Wirathu’s words have inspired a wave of anti-Muslim sentiment over the past two years that has resulted in the killing of more than 200 people, mostly Muslims, and the displacing of many more, as religious strife has spread from Rakhine state along Burma’s border with Bangladesh to cities and towns across the country.

The eruptions of violence tend to follow a similar pattern: rumours, often disseminated online, of a crime or perceived insult allegedly perpetrated by a Muslim against a Buddhist trigger deadly reprisals against entire Muslim communities.

This summer the unrest reached Mandalay, a city that owes much of its ethnic and religious mix to its history as a trading post between China and India. After unconfirmed reports that a Buddhist woman was raped by her Muslim employers spread on Facebook, hundreds of Buddhist men carrying clubs and swords rampaged through the streets.

The riots ended with two people dead and a curfew imposed across the city. Today some traders, fearful of being attacked in future, have used red paint to write on shop fronts that the premises are Buddhist-owned.


“It is so sad to see this happen in a place like Mandalay,” says renowned local artist U Sein Myint, whose work hangs in the United Nations headquarters in New York. “Our diversity is what makes us special.”

That diversity is shown in one neighbourhood where Buddhist pagodas, a mosque, a Hindu temple, a Protestant church and a Baha'i centre can all be found in one small grid of streets. But Mandalay is also home to Wirathu, who gained international notoriety last year when he appeared on the front cover of Time magazine with the strapline: "The face of Buddhist terror."

Burmese authorities banned distribution of the edition after it caused an outcry among the monk’s acolytes. But Wirathu appears to take an odd pride in it – a photograph on the wall of the monastery courtyard shows him reading the issue.

The wall also features graphic images of alleged Buddhist victims of religious violence in Rakhine and insignia associated with a controversial campaign called 969, which calls on Buddhists to shop, sell property and marry within their religion. Stickers branding businesses as owned by Buddhists can be seen across the country.

It all adds up to an increasingly poisonous environment that leaves Muslims feeling stigmatised and fearful of attack, says Myo Nyunt, who chairs the board of trustees at a Mandalay mosque that dates back to the 1860s and is associated with the city’s ethnic Chinese Panthay Muslims.

“Wirathu talks about a Muslim takeover when we are just a tiny percentage of the population. His words are dangerous because this fiery speech not only creates division, it can also move people to violence,” says Myo, sitting in the mosque courtyard where a nearby wall displays prayer times in Burmese, Chinese and Arabic. “We are worried that our young people will get agitated in response and feel they have to defend themselves.”


Wirathu’s critics include some of his fellow monks in Mandalay. One is Galonni Sayadaw, who tried to disperse the marauding Buddhists in July. “I told them violence is not the way,” he says. “Wirathu should not behave like this. Making a war between Buddhists and Muslims would be disastrous for our country.”

Galonni, who is well known for his role in monk-led activism against the old military junta, warns that communal tensions could be manipulated by elements trying to slow the country’s fragile transition to democracy ahead of crucial elections next year. “Many political games are being played,” he says.

Some Burmese believe the violence may be linked to efforts to hamper Aung San Suu Kyi’s political ambitions and prevent her from ever becoming president. Campaigns to have the military- drafted constitution that bars her from running amended have been disrupted by the unrest. Wirathu, however, declares himself a fan. A large portrait of the Nobel laureate occupies a prominent position in the centre of Masoeyin and some monks there claimed she visited the monastery after her release from house arrest in 2010. “She is the mother of the nation and I would like to see her as president one day,” says Wirathu.

Suu Kyi has been criticised for not taking a greater stand against the anti-Muslim drive and its ensuing violence. Her supporters defend her, saying she cannot risk alienating Burma’s monks, who wield considerable influence on the population, particularly in rural areas, a fact Wirathu observes with no little satisfaction. “We monks cannot vote but the people listen to us,” he says with a smile.