Myanmar’s “Buddhist Bin Laden” has made a return to public life, appearing at a rally in support of the military generals condemned globally for a brutal crackdown on the Muslim minority Rohingya. Wirathu, an infamous Buddhist nationalist monk, was sanctioned in March 2017 for religious hate speech that demonised the Rohingya Muslims. And last weekend, his rhetoric demonstrated that — at least in his mind — little had changed.
As military flag-waving demonstrators carried portraits of Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, Wirathu lambasted the United Nations, saying the day Myanmar authorities are brought before the International Criminal Court “is the day that Wirathu holds a gun”. The court last month opened a preliminary probe into alleged state-sponsored violence against the Rohingya, including sexual violence, killings, and enforced disappearances.
An estimated 700,000 Rohingya fled over the border into Bangladesh between September and December last year, leaving behind lives built over generations in their dash for safety. “Don’t lie to the world saying that Bengalis are Rohingya because you want to promote Islamisation in Myanmar,” Wirathu said, according to a report by local news magazine Frontier Myanmar.
Buddhist nationalism has become increasingly prominent in Myanmar since the country began opening up in 2011, with growing tensions sparking roiling communal violence in Rakhine State. Myanmar’s military generals retaliated after Rohingya insurgents attacked border police, killing 12 people, by embarking on what the United Nations has called “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” with “genocidal intent”.
The military has also been accused of using social media to stoke tensions between Buddhists and Muslims, allegedly orchestrating a sophisticated anti-Muslim Facebook campaign ahead of the violence. Dr Crouch said the military junta, which has ruled the country for nearly five decades, had reinforced the idea that Burman Buddhists were “superior”. “This is one reason among many that different ethnic and religious groups distrust the military.”
And the rise of Buddhist extremism at the expense of Muslims is not contained to Myanmar. Sri Lanka also experienced an outbreak of communal violence in March this year that saw Sinhalese mobs sweep through Kandy and other towns burning mosques and attacking Muslim businesses. It followed the death of a Buddhist truck driver days after he was involved in an altercation with four Muslims. The violence prompted the Government to declare a state of emergency and temporarily block social media sites it blamed for fuelling the clashes.
Both Myanmar and Sri Lanka are home to a Buddhist majority — about 90 per cent and 75 per cent of the population respectively — with a sizeable Muslim minority. And, as in Myanmar, many Sri Lankan Buddhists feel their status is threatened by adherents of an opposing religion. Andreas Johansson, director of the Swedish South Asian Studies Network, said the anti-Muslim sentiment mirrored post 9/11 attitudes in the West.
Meanwhile, radical monks espousing violence against Muslims have become a huge problem in the two countries that Governments have done little to address, according to Mr Robertson. “These governments must urgently act with strong measures against Buddhists who espouse and instigate violence, recognising that failure to act means the hatreds will spread and the situation will get worse,” he said. “It’s a problem that governments need to meet head on before the situation gets out of hand