WRAPPED in a saffron robe, Buddhist monk Wirathu insists he is a man of peace. Never mind his nine years in prison for inciting violence against Muslims.
Never mind that in the new Burma, the man dubbed the “Burmese bin Laden” has emerged as the spiritual leader of a pro-Buddhist fringe movement accused of fuelling a bloody campaign of sectarian violence.
Wirathu insists the world has misunderstood him. “If they knew my true ideas, they would call me saviour,” he says.
Wirathu, 44 and a monk since he was 17, has become the figurehead of a virulent strain of religious nationalism being spread by some of the most venerated members of Burmese society, Buddhist monks. Their core message is that Buddhists must unite against a growing Muslim threat.
Such monks provide an ideological justification for the religious violence that has ripped through Burma over the last year, threatening to destabilise the country’s still-fragile democracy.
The spread of this new radicalism has been helped by the very reforms it threatens to derail. A quasi-civilian government came to power in 2011 after five decades of brutal military rule. New freedoms of speech soon followed, which have made it easier to disseminate radical views. Wirathu himself was released in early 2012 as part of a widely-praised amnesty for political and other prisoners.
A short man, with evident charisma, Wirathu is the public face of a fast-spreading but still small campaign called “969.” Each digit enumerates virtues of the Lord Buddha, his teachings and the community of monks. The campaign urges Buddhists to shop only at Buddhist shops and avoid marrying, hiring or selling their homes or land to Muslims. Stickers and signs bearing the 969 emblem have been popping up on shops, taxis, and buses, marking them as Buddhist. Local 969 groups have been starting religious education classes for children.
Wirathu and others insist 969 is merely a peaceful movement to strengthen Buddhism and that it is being wrongly blamed for inciting religious violence.
One Muslim shopkeeper in Rangoon, Burma’s largest city, this weekend said his sales have fallen by two-thirds since a video of Wirathu preaching began circulating a month and a half ago.
“969 is very dangerous,” said the man, who spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing retribution. “They want to hurt Muslim businesses. When our business goes down, the Burmese will be rich.”
Followers say 969 is a response to 786, a number long used by Muslims in Burma to mark halal restaurants and shops.
Maung Maung, a Muslim is a tea shop owner in Mandalay, Burma’s spiritual capital and Wirathu’s base. He helped form an interfaith group after Buddhist-Muslim violence in western Burma last year, says he has no problem with Buddhists using 969 to mark their shops.
“Some people are trying to use it in the wrong way for their own ends,” he says.
“They don’t represent the monks’ community or the community at large.”
Outside Wirathu’s office at the New Ma Soe Yein monastery hangs a large poster of him gazing heavenward next to a dove with an olive branch in its beak. Dozens of faithful mill nearby, buying DVDs of his sermons.
Only around four percent of Burma is Muslim, according to official statistics.
Still, Wirathu maintains that Muslim domination is a major threat.