Wirathu is a 45-year old monk, dressing in traditional saffron-colored robes, living in a monastery in Mandalay where he produces DVDs and pieces for social media spreading his bigotry. The monk first rose to prominence in 2001 during a wave of anti-Muslim sentiment and was originally sentenced to 25 years in jail for incitement to violence before being released in Myanmar’s general amnesty granted to political prisoners in 2012.
Since his release, Wirathu has been a key leader in the “969” movement, a highly nationalist group so named for the nine attributes of the Buddha, his Sixfold Path, and the nine attributes of monkhood. What has followed has been a campaign of harassment towards Myanmar’s Muslim population, including boycotting Muslim-owned businesses and urging Buddhists to only patron Buddhist establishments which more and more frequently display the 969 symbol.
Tensions have reached a breaking point, however, including destroying mosques and inciting mob violence against Muslims. In March, a string of clashes between Buddhists and Muslims left at least 40 dead and 12,000 Muslims displaced from their homes. A Reuters report on the riots that lead to the bloodshed said that the riots and the killing that followed “took place in plain view of police, with no intervention by the local or central government.” Graffiti seen in the aftermath called for “Muslim extermination.”
Wirathu recently spoke to the Guardian, proving he isn’t shy about voicing his opinions towards Muslims and their supposed role in causing the violence in the country. Much like biases against Jewish and other minority faiths in communities around the world, Wirathu’s views are full of unsubstantiated rumors and outright fear-mongering:
Wirathu says part of his concern with Islam is that Buddhist women have been converted by force and then killed for failing to follow Islamic rules. He also believes the halal way of killing cattle “allows familiarity with blood and could escalate to the level where it threatens world peace”. […]
A minority population that makes up just 5% of the nation’s total, Wirathu says Burma’s Muslims are being financed by Middle Eastern forces: “The local Muslims are crude and savage because the extremists are pulling the strings, providing them with financial, military and technical power,” he said.
Wirathu also places the blame for any violence firmly at the feet of the Muslim community, claiming that any acts his followers have carried out was merely a response to Muslim attacks. In interviews, he refers to Muslims as “Bengalis,” a reference to the widespread belief in Myanmar that members of the ethnic minority Rohingya population are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. The Burmese government does little to stop discrimination towards the Rohingya, a people stripped of Burmese citizenship under a 1982 citizenship law.
Mistreatment of minority Muslims is currently taking place in majority Buddhist country Sri Lanka as well. Groups there — that call themselves names like the Buddhist Strength Force and Sinhala Echo — have stirred up anti-Muslim sentiment but have not produced the same death toll that the preaching of Wirathu has — yet.