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U Wirathu, a leading Burmese monk notorious for his anti-Muslim rhetoric, arrived in Sri Lanka on Friday night to take part in a conference organised by a politically powerful monk-led Sinhalese nationalist organisation, the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS).
On Sunday, Wirathu will deliver the conference’s keynote address to a conclave of BBS-affiliated monks in Colombo. His appearance in Sri Lanka follows a meeting in March with Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero, a prominent monk who co-founded the BBS in 2012.
That meeting coincided with an official trip to Burma by Sri Lanka’s president, Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Over the past two years, BBS sympathisers have been responsible for a string of attacks on mosques and churches around the country. In June, BBS-backed attacks on Muslim businesses, homes and mosques in southwestern Sri Lanka left nine people dead and some 10,000 displaced.
The BBS has launched a number of campaigns against Muslims and Christians, including a push to ban halal dietary certification and outlaw Muslim headscarves. It regularly holds rallies calling for an end to the recognition of minority rights, highlighting the alleged threat to Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese Buddhist majority posed by Islam.
According to a statement by Dilanthe Withanage, the group’s highest-ranking layman, the conference is intended to foster a political framework that will be “based on Buddhist principles, creating an environment within which minorities can live peacefully with Sinhalese,” as opposed to a “so-called devolution of power” that would enshrine minority rights – particularly for the Tamil-majority north and east of the island.
News of Wirathu’s planned visit drew the ire of Sri Lanka’s Muslim and Christian leaders, who wrote a letter to the country’s immigration department, the president, and his brother, defence minister Gotabaya Rajapaksa, urging the government to deny him entry to the country. “His presence and speech at the meeting may incite further violence against the Muslims,” the letter read. “Granting entry clearance will be seen as an active support given by the government to the anti-Muslim hate campaign that organisations like the Bodu Bala Sena have carried on in Sri Lanka.”
Withanage’s statement claimed that criticism of the BBS’ convention was the work of “racists, extremists, opportunists and fundamentalists who are scared of the growing Buddhist movement,” adding that “[Wirathu] gave life to Burma’s Buddhist revivalist movement, and the Sri Lanka Muslim council’s outcry over his presence is an example of such opportunism.”
In contrast to Burma, where monks are constitutionally barred from running for public office, a group of Sri Lankan monks formed the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), or National Heritage Party, to contest parliamentary elections in 2004. The JHU was a vocal supporter of Rajapaksa’s no-holds-barred assault against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009, which ended the country’s 26-year civil war amid international condemnation and allegations of war crimes.
In 2012, Gnanasera and another JHU monk, Kirama Wimalajothi Thero, severed ties with the party on the grounds that it was not taking a hard enough stance against religious minorities. Although the BBS is not strictly a political party, it influences policy and enjoys the support of elements within the government, including, prominently, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who inaugurated the group’s headquarters in 2013.
Despite taboos in Burma that preclude the participation of monks in formal political life, Wirathu and a coalition of like-minded monks banded together last year under the acronym Ma Ba Tha (Committee for the Protection of Race and Religion), proposing legislation that would place restrictions on interfaith marriage and religious conversion.
Wirathu is also often cited as the leader of the “969 movement,” whose philosophy, closely aligned with that of the BBS, asserts that Islam poses an existential threat to Burmese Buddhism. In 2003, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison for his role in inciting anti-Muslim violence in Mandalay, Burma’s second-largest city, but was released in 2012 as part of a prisoner amnesty.