THE radical monk dubbed the Buddhist Bin Laden has denied fomenting violence against Burma’s Islamic population, but repeated his calls for sanctions to be imposed on Muslims amid heightened sectarian tensions.
Ashin Wirathu was speaking for the first time to a western journalist since Time magazine last month dubbed him ‘The Face of Buddhist Terror”, sparking protests in Burma and other Buddhist countries.
He denied inciting attacks on Muslims.
Speaking at his monastery on the outskirts of Mandalay, Wirathu said: “I feel equally bad when I see mosques burned and Islamic people attacked [as when seeing temples and Buddhist people attacked] that’s why I never want to encourage people to attack each other. If an Islamic man does bad things and a group of Buddhists get together and seek revenge I don’t agree with that,” he insisted.
However, with Burma’s president Thein Sein facing protests over alleged human rights abuses against Muslims, critics believe Wirathu is at least indirectly responsible for provoking violence through his “Dhamma” talks which describe Muslims as “troublemakers” who are a “threat” and “want to take over” Burma.
In the western state of Rakhine attacks involving Buddhists and the Muslim Rohingya people last year left around 200 people dead and an estimated 140,000, mainly Muslims, displaced. Outbreaks of sectarian riots and killings have occurred in other parts of Burma since.While international attention has focused on the Muslim victims, Wirathu and others in the pro-Buddhist movement known as 969 insist Buddhists are the ones under attack. It has circulated videos and gruesome images of what is claimed to be monks and other Buddhists killed by Muslims.
Asked if he accepted that such materials could incite sectarian violence, Wirathu replied: “You are from Scotland. The British [ie English] invaded both Ireland and Scotland. Do you miss that out from your history lessons?”
And while again insisting he did not advocate violence, the solution he offered to the perceived “threat” is provocative.
“I don’t know how you tame a wild elephant in your country,” he said when asked what he means when he says Buddhists should “stand up for themselves”. “But here the first thing you do is take away all their food and water. Then when the elephant is starving and weak you give him a little bit of water and teach him one word. Then you give him a little bit of food and teach him some more. That is how we tame elephants here.”
His metaphor reflects his call for sanctions on Muslims. He says Buddhists should boycott Muslim stores and not sell land to them. He is also calling for a legal ban on Buddhist women marrying Muslim men.
For many Burmese Buddhists the concept of criticising a monk is almost unthinkable. However, in private, many intellectuals believe Wirathu and 969 are being manipulated by people keen to destabilise Thein Sein’s government and Burma’s move towards democracy.
This view is shared by some in the Muslim community, too.
At a mosque in Rangoon, one imam, speaking off the record, said: “I don’t believe this is about religion. It is about certain people trying to gain political power. We Muslims have been here for 1,000 years and are Burmese too.”