President Thein Sein has defended the prominent anti-Muslim monk Wirathu and his controversial “969” movement, which calls for Buddhists to boycott Muslim businesses, after Time Magazine described him as “the face of Buddhist terror” on the front cover of their 1 July edition.
In a public statement issued late on Sunday night, Thein Sein accused Time of slandering the Buddhist religion and harming the national reconciliation process by accusing the outspoken cleric of stoking anti-Muslim violence in Burma.
Describing him as a “son of Buddha”, the president defended Wirathu as a “noble person” committed to peace. “The article in Time Magazine can cause misunderstanding about the Buddhist religion, which has existed for millennia and is followed by the majority of Burmese citizens,” Thein Sein said.
Wirathu has attracted international condemnation for his vitriolic anti-Muslim sermons, which warn against the threat of “Islamisation” in Burma and have been denounced as “hate speech” by rights activists. Less than two weeks ago he attempted to push through a national law to ban interfaith marriages under the guise of “protecting” the Buddhist faith.
“[Muslims] are breeding so fast and they are stealing our women, raping them,” Wirathu told Time in the contentious 1 July issue. “Around 90% of Muslims in Burma are “radical bad people”.”
But a spokesperson for the president on Monday defended Wirathu’s right to “express [his] opinion” and dismissed allegations that his sermons encouraged violence. He added that it would be up to the government-backed monastic body, Sangha Maha Nayaka, to decide whether his actions should be investigated.
“We have not heard of any complaint made to the Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee that alleges that any of [his] concepts are violent,” Ye Htut told DVB, adding that the Time cover unfairly links Buddhism with terrorism. “The article is written from a rather one-sided point of view.”
The self-proclaimed “Burmese bin Laden” was jailed by the former military regime in 2003 for fuelling anti-Muslim riots in Mandalay in central Burma. Since his release in January 2012, he has become the face of Burma’s “969” movement, which promotes an extreme form of Buddhist nationalism and has been linked to a series of violent attacks on Muslims.
In an interview with DVB last week, Wirathu accused Time of committing a “serious human rights violation” by refusing to present his views in a verbatim question and answer format.
“Before I had heard [rumours] of the Arab world dominating the global media,” he said. “But this time, I’ve seen it for myself.”
News of the 1 April cover of Time has also stirred controversy on social media, where supporters of Wirathu have set up a Facebook page calling for a boycott against the “lying, unjust” magazine. Meanwhile an online petition, which is pushing 50,000 signatures on Avaaz.org, is calling for Time to withdraw the edition.
The controversial Time cover has also prompted criticisms among other analysts, who worry that the media’s excessive focus on Wirathu may distract attention from the government’s failure to address anti-Muslim violence in Burma.
Some 140,000 predominantly Muslim Rohingya were displaced during two bouts of ethno-religious clashes with Arakanese Buddhists in western Burma last year. Since March, anti-Muslim riots have spread to several towns in central Burma, including Meikhtila, where at least 43 people were killed and thousands more displaced.
But so far only Muslims have been sentenced to jail, including a woman who allegedly sparked violence in Oakkan township near Rangoon by bumping into a novice monk and spilling his alms bowl.
While Thein Sein blamed “political opportunists and religious extremists” for exploiting the Buddhist faith in a March speech, Sunday’s statement has raised questions about his sincerity in addressing the violence.
“The government’s claims that it is seeking to uphold ‘rule of law’ for all concerned is contradicted by the president’s apparent willingness to bend over backwards to protect those inciting violence when they wear saffron robes,” Phil Robertson, Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division, told DVB. “By appeasing hate speech in religious form, Thein Sein and his government are heading in precisely the wrong direction on human rights.”
Even democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi has come under fire for failing to speak out for Burma’s Muslim minorities. But the opposition leader recently took a stance against both Wirathu’s proposed interfaith marriage ban, and the government’s two-child policy for Rohingyas.
Western governments, including the US, have also insisted that Thein Sein must stop violence against Muslims.
“We have consistently encouraged religious and civil society leaders and other citizens to take a stand against violence,” Michael Quinlan, a spokesperson for the US Embassy in Rangoon, told DVB. “We continue to discuss with the Burmese government the need to promote a pluralistic and tolerant society.”
Nay Thwin contributed reporting.