A court in Myanmar yesterday issued an arrest warrant for the outspoken nationalist Buddhist monk Ashin Wirathu, who has been the face of the country’s Buddhist nationalist movement, garnering global headlines for his vocal opposition to Islam and Myanmar’s minority Rohingya Muslim community, exacerbating religious tensions in this Southeast Asian nation.
Police spokesman Myo Thu Soe said the arrest warrant was issued in Yangon late on Tuesday on a charge of sedition, although police have so far declined to state exactly why Wirathu has been charged. The monk could face a maximum prison sentence of life under Myanmar’s sedition law, which prohibits “attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the government.” (RT)
Wirathu recently drew official ire for a series of public addresses in which he criticized Myanmar’s government and de facto civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, accusing the government of corruption and of attempting to amend the constitution to reduce the political influence of the military.
The 50-year-old monk has reportedly held a series of pro-military rallies recently to protest government steps to change the 2008 constitution, which affords the military considerable influence over the ostensibly civilian government. At a rally in the southern city of Myeik earlier this month, he is reported to have been critical of State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi: “When commissions are formed, they are formed with foreigners. Those who advise her are all foreigners. Those who accompany her are also foreigners,” he said, adding, “Those who sleep with . . .” before stopping abruptly to laughter from the audience. (Myanmar Now)
According to media reports, Wirathu had left his monastery in Mandalay, and his whereabouts on Tuesday were unknown. However, earlier Wednesday the outspoken monk is reported to have told The Irrawaddy news magazine that he was in Yangon to meet members of Yangon Region’s Sangha Council to receive an official warning against his involvement in secular matters.
According to The Irrawaddy, it is expected that police will try to arrest Wirathu after he leaves the meeting, which is scheduled for Thursday.
“I still haven’t got any notification about the warrant. If they want to catch me, let them do. I will face it,” Wirathu was quoted as saying, adding that he did not expect a long prison sentence: “I don’t think they [the government] would be that brutal.” (The Irrawaddy)
“This sedition accusation is bullying him,” Wirathu ally Thu Saitta told the Reuters news agency. “We won’t say what we will do if he is arrested, but it is certain that we won’t be calm.” (Reuters)
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 remain in squalid resettlement camps where they are 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 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 on 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 has since spoken at 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.
Arrest warrant issued for Myanmar hardline monk Wirathu (Reuters)
‘I Will Face the Arrest’: U Wirathu (The Irrawaddy)
Wirathu Faces Arrest After Being Charged Under Sedition Law, Say Police (Myanmar Now)
Myanmar: Arrest warrant issued for anti-Muslim monk Wirathu (Al Jazeera)
Naypyidaw: arrest warrant for Wirathu, “the Buddhist bin Laden” (AsiaNews.it)
‘Buddhist Bin Laden’ on the run in Myanmar after inflammatory Suu Kyi comments (RT)