Prominent Myanmar nationalist Buddhist monk Wirathu on Friday said the media has wrongly labeled him the “Burmese Bin Laden,” rejecting claims that he is responsible for a recent surge of communal violence against Muslims.
Wirathu, 46, from Mandalay’s Masoeyein Monastery, is the leader of the “969” Buddhist movement— the name of which refers to the various virtues of the Buddha and which calls on its followers to boycott Muslim businesses and social circles after deadly violence erupted in the middle of last year.
Wirathu said his group was not responsible for the violence and rejected claims—including one recently made in the July issue of Time magazine—that he was a self-proclaimed terrorist waging a holy war against Myanmar’s Muslim minority.
“[Time] referred to me as the ‘Burmese Bin Laden,’” Wirathu told RFA’s Myanmar Service, referring to the name several media organizations say the 969 leader has himself used in the past.
“I told their reporter when they came and met me that it was the Muslims who gave me this name. I didn’t refer to myself this way, but [Time] used this name in the story,” he said.
About 200 people have been killed and 140,000 displaced in two waves of sectarian unrest between Buddhists and Muslims in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state. Rights groups say that the region’s Muslim Rohingya group bore the brunt of the violence.
Violence between Buddhists and Muslims, who account for some 4 percent of the country’s 60-million population, also spread to communities in central Myanmar’s Meikhtila, near Wirathu’s base, in March and to Shan state last month.
‘Time to rise up’
In the report, Time quoted Wirathu, who was jailed for seven years after inciting anti-Muslim violence in 2003, as preaching a message that “crackles with hate” towards the religious minority.
“Now is not the time for calm … now is the time to rise up, to make your blood boil,” it quoted him preaching during a sermon delivered to hundreds of worshippers in Mandalay.
“Incendiary rhetoric from Wirathu … and other hard-line monks is fanning the flames of religious chauvinism,” the report said, quoting the monk as saying that “[Muslims] would like to occupy our country, but I won’t let them” and “we must keep Myanmar Buddhist.”
But speaking with RFA, Wirathu referred to his as “the hand that holds the pen,” not the sword, and said that he abhorred violence to the point that “I don’t even like to respond rudely.”
“I was described as a terrorist, which is really the opposite of what I stand for and how I act,” he said.
The monk leader accused unnamed “wealthy people” of trying to “control Myanmar” through the “use of the media, weapons, manpower, and technology,” adding that it was “obvious that the Muslim world was behind the Time magazine article.”
Wirathu said that he was not behind the Rakhine state and Meikhtila clashes, claiming that he was unaware of the violence in Rakhine state until it had spread significantly in the region and that the Meikhtila clashes grew as a result of a Buddhist monk being killed by Muslims.
“The places where we [969 monks] have preached haven’t had any problems because we have made clear our policy—not to provoke [violence] and not to be aggressive,” he said, adding that even if adherents are confronted, they should solve conflicts according to the law.
The 969 group distributes stickers and placards prominently displaying the numerals to Buddhist shops so that other Buddhists will know to do business there instead of at Muslim establishments.
“Some people describe 969 as a bad group. Perhaps they believe that Myanmar can be occupied if 969 is shut down,” he said, without identifying the organization he feared would take over the country.
But Wirathu said that his movement was mostly concerned with defending the country from the Rohingya Muslims of Rakhine state, who he referred to as “Bengalis," echoing a widespread belief among most people in Myanmar that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
He said it is important to make a distinction between the Rohingya, who he labeled “enemies of the people” who “embrace violence,” and Muslims in other parts of the country.
“When the Rakhine problem erupted, I told Muslims who are close to me and live outside of Rakhine State to reject and condemn the violence by Bengali Rohingyas,” he said.
“By doing so, the public would understand that other Muslims in Myanmar are not the same as the Bengalis. If they refused, all Muslims could be considered enemies of the people that embrace violence.”
Wirathu also referred to the “786 plan,” which he said was “founded many years ago by other Muslims,” as part of the motivation behind the conflict between the Buddhist and Muslim communities.
The numerals 786 are used in South Asian Muslim tradition as a representation of the Quranic phrase “In the name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Ever Merciful” and signs portraying the numbers are often hung in Muslim food establishments to signify that the store sells halal items.
But according to the online Irrawaddy journal, the people of Myanmar have long misinterpreted 786 as a Muslim conspiracy to take over the world in the 21st century, as the sum of the three numbers is equal to 21.
The 969 monks took their name as a symbol of a religious movement in opposition to 786, the Irrawaddy said.
“If today’s Muslims separate themselves from 786 and the movement is abolished, the people of Myanmar won’t view 786 negatively, and if people no longer have the negative view against 786, we would have peace between the Buddhists and Muslims,” Wirathu said.
“Muslim and Buddhist leaders must collaborate to prevent this conflict from growing, and we must educate the people to solve their problems according to the law.”
Reported by Khin Khin Ei for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.