Every religion has extremists. Buddhism isn’t an exception, as a 45-year-old Burmese Monk dubbed as the “Buddhist Bin Laden” is flaming social tensions between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar by advocating for violence against Rohingyas. In doing so, Wirathu is invoking the call for a Burmese Buddhist national identity while gaining popularity in the country to help his own rise as a significant influence in Myanmar’s politics.
Wirathu is a 45-year-old Buddhist monk who has used social media channels to convey his hate-filled messages. The West’s conventional image of Buddhist followers is one of a religion of peace, yet many are shocked that in a region that has often been called one of the most peaceful in the world, there is an emergence of such hate induced actions caused by his speech.
Wirathu was born near Mandalay, and in 2001, created a national campaign to boycott Muslim businesses in 2001. He was soon jailed 25 years for his actions. He was released in 2010 through a general amnesty.
Wirathu has been on the stump since his release, and has been associated with violence in Rakhine and in Mandalay. In Rakhine, more than 200 people were killed and 100,000 in 2012. His message of hate and violence against Muslims also led to recent violence in Meiktila, where a dispute at a gold shop led to 40 deaths, and the destruction of a Muslim community in the city.
Muslims comprise of 5% Myanmar’s 60 million people. Wirathu’s rants and tirades against Muslims in Myanmar have also culminated in the nationalist “969” campaign using the number 969 to demarcate homes so that they can identify themselves as clearly Buddhists and create remnants of a state divided not by sectionalism, but rather through religion. This has led to hate-filled speeches where he has described Muslims as both “cruel and savage” and has attacked many Muslim practices from the killing of cattle to convincing many Buddhists in Myanmar that the population boom among Muslim communities in these countries will lead to a takeover of the country.
Wirathu is clearly not in Buddhist mainstream thought, since the Buddha’s teachings argue against hatred and intolerance. He represents the other side of a growing sentiment in Myanmar, as the world slowly comes to learn about Myanmar as it opens up to the world after years of military repression.
Wirathu’s agenda is to create a Buddhist national identity through violent measures. By pitting one against the other in this region he is gaining prominence, power and influence, with the military, the president and many other leaders such Aung San Suu Kyi staying quiet on the issues of the Rohingya population. Wirathu poses a thorn to democratic governance in the future with communal tensions stoking a national argument over what to do on the minority Rohingya population, who are also Muslim.
The world has seen religious purification play out several times. It never ended well whether it was in the South Asian subcontinent or in Europe with Nazi Germany. While there is a growing interfaith community in Myanmar dedicated towards fighting polarizing oppositions such as Wirathu, the Burmese Bin Laden will pose a test to Myanmar’s democratic experiment and governance issues in the future if his hate speech is unchecked.