Myanmar's Ashin Wirathu: Five Reasons for His Rise

29 Oct, 2014    ·   4717

Aparupa Bhattacherjee weighs in on the perceived face of Buddhist extremism in the country

Aparupa Bhattacherjee
Aparupa Bhattacherjee
Research Officer

U Ashin Wirathu, the Buddhist monk, is seen as the face of Buddhist extremism in Myanmar by the world. The 969 movement led by him aims to save Myanmar from the perceived threat of the rising number of Muslims within the country. Both Wirathu and the 969 movement have a huge number of followers in Myanmar. Wirathu came into the limelight quite suddenly in 2012, and has become a familiar face in all national and international newspapers and journals. What has led to Wirathu’s sudden popularity?

Wirathu, who has been referred to as the face of the “Buddhist terror” and the “Burmese Bin Laden” in several international newspapers, journals and magazines comes from a humble background and is comparatively young to attain this stature. Wirathu was born in a small town called Kyauke in the Mandalay province on 10 July 1968. Although he was arrested by the former military government in 2003 and sentenced to twenty five years in prison for his anti-Muslim sermons, he was granted amnesty in 2011.  He came to the forefront in 2012 by leading a rally in Mandalay to support the current President Thein Sien’s controversial plan to send Rohingya Muslims to another country. In a span of two years he has become the face of Buddhist radicalism in Myanmar.

He has become an abbot, at a very young age, of a huge monastery called Masoyein, with 2500 students under him, where he trains them to fight the so-called Muslim militants. Thus it seems that Wirathu is a strategist as well as an opportunist who has effectively cultivated several factors to attain this popularity.

Backstage Support
The fact that Wirathu is able to openly and freely preach his anti-Muslim ideology all over Myanmar unlike other monks, who had once been arrested by the former military government, suggests that he is being supported by a section of the government especially by the radical wing within it. Wirathu continues his provocative teaching without being arrested. 2012, the year Wirathu came to the limelight, is a significant year as this is the same year that the National League of Democracy (NLD) entered the Myanmarese Parliament with a sweeping victory in the by-election held in the same year. Thus it seems support for Wirathu is a strategy by that section of the government that would prefer to have continuing violence within the country so that attention is diverted from the pro-democracy propaganda of the NLD party and their leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Internal Tensions
Both Wirathu and the 969 movement have built their support on the foundation of pre-existing tensions between the Buddhists and the Muslims, which has been around for centuries. Both have essentially cultivated these fractures to forward their agendas.

Media as a Tool
In 2011, the pro-civilian government of Myanmar partially removed censorship over the media. The freedom to use uncensored media has paved the way for Wirathu to enter the limelight. He has rarely refused journalists and scholars who have asked for his appointment or interview. Time magazine in July 2013 came up with a cover story that claimed Wirathu to be the “The Face of Buddhist Terror.” Although it was vehemently opposed by both Wirathu and the present Myanmarese government, it did not deter Wirathu from giving further interviews. All his sermons are widely available on YouTube. However barely any factual information about his early life is available, except for where and when he was born. It seems Wirathu knows well which aspects of his life to display and which to keep secret.

Force of Personality
Wirathu’s personality also has a role to play in the achievement of his quick success. He is a good orator; this helps him gain a mass following. While preaching he keeps his calm and speaks quietly. Among his numerous followers, some of follow him because they genuinely believe in him and others follow him out of fear. In Myanmar, all Buddhist monks are attributed with respect and authority. Furthermore, being the abbot of a monastery at the heart of Mandalay has also empowered Wirathu with a higher level of blind respect and authority that has benefitted him greatly.

Alliances and International Recognition
Support from and alliances with similar radical Buddhist organisations like Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) in Sri Lanka has further enhanced Wirathu’s image. Recently, both BBS and 969 movement have commenced a joint conference and pledge their allegiance to each other. Such a move has not only concretised the fear that radical Buddhism is growing and might spread to other South Asian and Southeast Asian countries but has also provided Wirathu with international recognition.

All these factors have come together to push Wirathu into the sudden limelight. Although he is portrayed as the face of Buddhist extremism, the problem of religious radicalism in Myanmar is very complex, has several roots, and many faces.