Hardline Buddhist monk Ashin Wirathu, who has garnered international renown and criticism for fomenting religious tensions through his vocal opposition to Islam and Myanmar’s minority Rohingya Muslim community, turned himself in to police on Monday after almost 1-1/2 years on the run, and just days ahead of a critical national election.
An arrest warrant for the outspoken 52-year-old monk, who has been the high-profile face of the country’s Buddhist nationalist movement, was issued in May last year on a charge of sedition, following a series of speeches attacking and criticizing the civilian government of State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and praising the country’s military as champions of Buddhism.*
Wirathu’s surprise surrender comes just days before Myanmar’s general election on Sunday, which Suu Kyi´s ruling National League for Democracy party is expected to win with a similar landslide to its landmark victory in 2015.
“I will pay homage to senior monks, and then I will go with police, I will go wherever they send,” Wirathu was quoted as saying by Reuters, which cited a video broadcast of the speech. (Reuters)
Speaking to a small crowd outside the police station where he surrendered, Wirathu said: “Mainly, I would like to request my fellow monks around the country to ask their followers to vote for the parties that work to protect the country’s race and religion,” (CNA)
His words on Monday were interpreted as an endorsement of the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party, the main parliamentary opposition to the National League for Democracy, and as a bid to destabilize the ruling civilian government.
The monk also accused the National League of Democracy of harassment and freezing his bank account, giving him no choice but to become a fugitive: “The NLD government has sued me,” Wirathu said. “It’s an act of bullying and shaming a monk, a son of the Buddha.” (Radio Free Asia)
If found guilty of the sedition charge, Wirathu could be sentenced to three years to life in prison. He will also have to be defrocked by Myanmar’s Buddhist monastic authorities before he can be formally arrested.
Religious tensions between Buddhists and Muslims have simmered in Myanmar for almost half a century, but came to a head with violent clashes in 2012 that killed more than 100 people. Rakhine State is one of the most sensitive and conflict-prone regions in Myanmar, particularly since outbreaks of anti-Muslim violence in 2012 and 2013, following which some 140,000 people, most of them Rohingya Muslims, were displaced. Most Rohingya were sent to squalid resettlement camps where they were subject to severe restrictions, with limited access to education, healthcare, or employment opportunities, although deadly outbreaks of violence and military action saw hundreds of thousands of Rohingya flee to neighboring Bangladesh in 2017 and 2018.
Wirathu was previously sentenced to 25 years in prison by the former military junta of Myanmar in 2003 for his inflammatory sermons, but was released in 2012. Wirathu then began delivering anti-Muslim speeches throughout the country. The same year, violence erupted in Rakhine State, leading to the displacement of tens of thousands of Rohingya Mulsims. In January 2018, Facebook bowed to growing public pressure to clamp down on hate speech by removing Wirathu’s page.
“You can be full of kindness and love, but you cannot sleep next to a mad dog,” the abbot is reported to have said in a 2013 sermon against Myanmar’s Muslim community. (RT)
In 2017, a council of senior monks was able to enforce a one-year ban preventing Wirathu from speaking in public because he “repeatedly delivered hate speech against religions to cause communal strife and hinder efforts to uphold the rule of law.” (Myanmar Now) However the ban ended in March 2018 and he returned to the public eye with a series of pro-military rallies.
Myanmar has seen a steady increase in nationalist sentiment, bolstered by growth in a number of ultra-nationalist religious organizations such as Ma Ba Tha (The Patriotic Association of Myanmar), a collective of hardline Buddhist abbots and influential monks founded in 2013, actively fueling religious divisions in Myanmar, especially toward the Rohingya minority. However, major figures from Myanmar’s mainstream political and religious communities, including the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee of the country’s most senior monks, have publicly spoken out against Ma Ba Tha, saying the group’s policies are not representative of the country’s Buddhist sangha, which has some 250,000 members according to a government estimate, and do not reflect the essence of Buddhism.
Myanmar is a predominantly Theravada Buddhist country, with 88 per cent of the population of some 51 million people identifying as Buddhists, according to census data for 2014. Christians (6.2 per cent), folk religions (0.8 per cent), and Muslims (4.2 per cent) account for the bulk of the remainder. Buddhist monks, venerated throughout Burmese society, are believed to number around 500,000, with an estimated 75,000 Buddhist nuns.
* Myanmar Court Issues Arrest Warrant for Firebrand Buddhist Monk Wirathu (Buddhistdoor Global)
Myanmar fugitive monk Wirathu hands himself in to face sedition charges (Reuters)
Myanmar firebrand monk Wirathu surrenders to police (CNA)
Hate-Peddling Buddhist Monk Turns Himself in to Police in Myanmar (The Diplomat)
Myanmar Election Stunt Seen as Fugitive Ultranationalist Monk Turns Himself In (Radio Free Asia)
‘Buddhist Bin Laden’ on the run in Myanmar after inflammatory Suu Kyi comments (RT)