Meet the Monk whom the Time Magazine Declared ‘The Face of Buddhist Terror’

Ashin Wirathu

The July, 2013 issue of Time Magazine featured a rather interesting cover story. The cover story of the issue carried a picture of an obscure monk from Myanmar with a grim expression etched across his face, not known widely across the world until then, with the headline, “The Face of Buddhist Terror: How Militant Monks are fueling Anti-Muslim Violence in Asia”. The Saffron Clad Monk with the traditional shaved head was a man with a tumultuous past and a controversial history. The Monk, of course, was Ashin Wirathu. The aftermath of the cover story generated strong opinions on both sides of the fence. The then President of Myanmar, Thein Sein, heavily criticized the Time’s piece and accused Time Magazine of slandering the Buddhist religion. President Thein Sein described Ashin Wirathu as a “Son of Buddha” and defended him as a “noble person” committed to peace.

In defense of Time Magazine, Ashin Wirathu does hold rather controversial opinions. Hannah Beech, the author of the Time Magazine article, quotes the Monk as saying, “[Muslims] are breeding so fast, and they are stealing our women, raping them. They would like to occupy our country, but I won’t let them. We must keep Myanmar Buddhist.” In an interview with GlobalPost, Ashin Wirathu said about the Islamic community, “Muslims are like the African carp. They breed quickly and they are very violent and they eat their own kind. Even though they are minorities here, we are suffering under the burden they bring us.” Once, the controversial Monk spoke of Rohingyan Muslims, “You can be full of kindness and love but you cannot sleep next to a mad dog.” On another occasion, the Monk said voicing an opinion that many feel in their hearts not only in Burma but all over the world concerned about the violent expansionist approach of Islam, “If we are weak, our land will become Muslim.”

Ashin Wirathu accused Time of committing “serious Human Rights Violations” by not quoting him verbatim in their piece. He went on to add, “Before I had heard [rumours] of the Arab world dominating the global media. But this time, I’ve seen it for myself.” Like most people around the world, Ashin Wirathu suggests that Rohingyans are being radicalized by actors from the Middle East. He says, “The local Muslims are crude and savage because the extremists are pulling the strings, providing them with financial, military and technical power.”

Even though he was arrested in 2003 for his sermons (released 9 years later), Ashin Wirathu is a widely respected and revered Monk among the Buddhist community in Myanmar.

He is the leader of a hugely popular nationalist movement, the 969 movement, which described itself as a Buddhist revivalist movement with the goal of preserving the national character of Myanmar. The 969 movement advocates the social and economic boycott of Muslims and seeks to outlaw inter-religious marriages between Buddhist women and Muslim men to prevent the conversion of Buddhist women to the Abrahamic Faith. The name for the movement has its source in Buddhist numerology. Quoting Wikipedia, “The first 9 stands for the nine special attributes of the Lord Buddha and the 6 for the six special attributes of his Dharma, or Buddhist Teachings, and the last 9 represents the nine special attributes of Buddhist Sangha (monastic community).”

Quite obviously, not every Buddhist Monk is a fan of Ashin Wirathu. He certainly has his fair share of detractors. One of them is Abbot Arriya Wuttha Bewuntha of Mandalay’s Myawaddy Sayadaw monastery. “He sides a little towards hate,” he says, “This is not the way Buddha taught. What the Buddha taught is that hatred is not good, because Buddha sees everyone as an equal being. The Buddha doesn’t see people through religion.” Phra Paisal Visalo, prominent Buddhist scholar and Monk from Thailand, considers the narrative of “us and them” created by Myanmar’s radical monks as anathema to Buddhism. However, those who don’t necessarily agree with Ashin Wirathu tend to share at least some of his concerns. Ashin Sanda Wara who thinks the Monks in Myanmar divided almost equally between the Extremist and Moderate Camps and considers himself among the Moderates admits that he was “afraid of Muslims because their population is increasing so rapidly.”

Thus far, we have explored only one side of the story. And Ashin Wirathu certainly doesn’t portray himself as a very sympathetic character. But it’s important to remember, men like Ashin Wirathu are not born in a vacuum. They are moulded by the circumstances that surround them and the history of their nation. And therefore, for the purpose of understanding his motivations and concerns that drive him, it is important that we delve into the history of the relationship between the two communities virtually at war with each other. And perhaps, after we have examined all aspects of the story, we can gain better insight into the nature of this enigmatic personality.

Too many people, out of their own vested interests or because sheer ignorance, seek to paint Rohingyans as the most persecuted minority in the world and absolve the Rohingyan Muslim community of all sins. The conflict between the Burmese and Rohingyans is certainly not a product of insane bloodlust of people from the majority community of the country. They are certainly not blameless and indeed might have a huge hand in the treatment they have been meted out. It’s not to say what’s happening to them is not terrible but as the old saying goes, what goes around comes around.

In May 1946, Muslims leaders from Arakan, Myanmar (present day Rakhine) met with Muhammad Ali Jinnah and pleaded for the formal annexation of two townships in the Mayu region to then East Pakistan. Not long after, the North Arakan Muslim League was founded which approached Jinnah with the same request. Jinnah refused insisting that he couldn’t interfere with the internal matters of Burma following which Muslims in Arakan approached the newly formed post-independence government of Burma with a proposal asking them to concede the two townships to Pakistan. Burma rejected their proposal as well. And then, the Mujahideen went on to wage Jihad against the Burmese to ‘liberate’ Arakan from Kaafirs. They attacked the government soldiers posted in the area and drove out local Rakhine communities from their own land. At one point of time, the Burmese government’s control was reduced to only the city of Akyab while the Mujahideen controlled all of the Northern region of Arakan. The Jihadist separatist movement continued well into the 1960s but the Burmese government prevailed against these forces by the end of the decade.

Since then, Radical Islam in Rohingya has survived and even thrived more or less in the form of organizations such as the Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO) which have garnered support from Islamist groups such as Jamaat-e-Islami in Bangladesh and Pakistan, Hizb-e-Islami in Afghanistan and Hizb-ul-Mujahideen in Jammu and Kashmir. One videotape obtained by CNN from Al-Qaeda’s archives in Afghanistan in August 2002 allegedly shows Jihadists from Myanmar training in Afghanistan. Jihadist organizations such as Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami and Harkat-ul-Ansar also claim to operate in Myanmar.

Considering such a turbulent history, it becomes clearer that the Burmese actions against Rohingyan Muslims is a disproportionate response to decades of Jihad that the Rohingyans have waged against the Burmese and continue to this day. The Rohingyans have discovered, not so much to their benefit, the Burmese do not take very kindly to threats of secession and would go to extreme ends to maintain their territorial integrity.

When Ashin Wirathu says if they’re weak, then Myanmar will turn Islamic, he speaks of a very real threat that the Burmese have been forced to deal with for decades now. And the militancy continues to this day. As recently as the last week of August this year, Rohingyan terrorists engaged in mass slaughter of the Burmese and ended up murdering dozens of people. It’s clearly a lot more complicated an issue than what the global media is portraying it to be.

Ashin Wirathu is a Monk from a nation that has been in direct conflict with Radical Islam for close to seven decades. In these seven decades, Myanmar has witnessed horrific atrocities and experienced terror beyond measure.

It’s not surprising then that Ashin Wirathu holds such extreme opinions about a community that has been hostile to the Burmese population and even wanted Burma to concede its territory to Pakistan. Ashin Wirathu sees the undeclared war against Rohingyan Muslims as an act of self-preservation against forces which would otherwise plot their destruction.

The fate of the Rohingyans should serve as example to Islamists all over the world who dream of Global Domination and seek to impose themselves on the native population. Instead of peaceful coexistence, the Rohingyans chose Jihad and now find themselves confronted by a man who loves his people enough to go to any lengths, even inhumane, to secure their safety and prosperity. In Ashin Wirathu’s own words, “I am defending my loved one,” he says, “like you would defend your loved one. I am only warning people about Muslims. Consider it like if you had a dog, that would bark at strangers coming to your house – it is to warn you. I am like that dog. I bark.”