05 Feb Tainting Buddhism

Written by Mizzima Weekly Published in Ed/Op Read 6521 times
Photo: Lynn Bo Bo/EPA

Friday January 16 wasn’t exactly a shining moment for the image of Buddhism in Myanmar. As the UN special rapporteur for human rights, Yanghee Lee, was wrapping up her second visit, prominent nationalist monk, the Venerable U Wirathu, unleashed a vitriolic attack in a speech in Yangon.

“Just because you hold a position in the United Nations doesn’t make you an honourable woman. In our country, you are just a whore. […]You can offer your arse to the kalars if you so wish but you are not selling off our Rakhine State,” Reuters quoted the controversial monk as saying.

The use of “kalar” in a derogatory sense for those of South Asian descent is a curious anomaly in a country in which most of the population seeks refuge in the teachings of a man who was born in what is now Nepal and spent most of his illustrious life wandering in northern India.

U Wirathu’s outburst led to widespread criticism. “All verbal acts of U Wirathu go against the code of conduct for Buddhist monks,” said the Myawady Sayadaw, Venerable Ashin Vansabhivamsa, in Eleven, media referring to the 227 rules of monastic conduct known as the Vinaya Pitaka. One of the monks who played a leading role in the protests in 2007 known as the Saffron Revolution, the Venerable Thawbita, said the language used in the speech was “sad” and “disappointing”.

U Wirathu is no stranger to inflammatory language. In 2003, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison for fomenting anti-Muslim sentiment in his sermons. In the years since he was released under amnesty in 2010, the leader of the nationalist Ma Ba Tha movement has propagated his anti-Muslim agenda, making good use of online tools such as Facebook. There have been suggestions that he was one of the instigators of the violence in Rakhine in 2012 and at Meikthila the following year.

Some questions spring to mind.

The first: what is the true significance of U Wirathu? The second: why was U Wirathu released in 2010? Could it be possible that he might in some way be serving a darker, hidden agenda in Rakhine, in which case the monk himself would be a pawn in a larger play?

It is clear U Wirathu’s prominence is in no small part the result of extensive, and largely uncritical, media coverage. Even this article helps to strengthen the impression that U Wirathu has a substantial following.

Just how substantial that following is remains unclear. Senior members of the community of monks, the sangha, have never been surveyed to determine their views on nationalist sentiment or anti-Muslim prejudice.

The perceptions created by the media can be deceiving. Extensive media coverage might eventually fullfil its own prophecy by helping to publicise the U Wirathu phenomenon, even if the venerable monk is little more than a bit player in a larger drama.

It’s a striking fact that U Wirathu was released at the beginning of the transition to democracy. President U Thein Sein even defended U Wirathu when Time magazine put him on its cover as “The Face of Buddhist Terror”. It is also curious that the government has not taken any steps to curtail the activities of the nationalist monk, as did the previous military government. Many countries in the world have laws curbing “hate speech”, but Myanmar authorities will not take action, a senior official told Reuters last week.

If an activist or journalist had been as outspoken as U Wirathu on any sensitive issue would they be immune from action by the authorities?

There are no coincidences in Myanmar. The “Muslim issue” is the only political topic that the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party can really dominate, because the National League for Democracy would lose international crediblity if it turned against a religious minority.

U Wirathu is stirring up the citizenship debate. This might be of benefit to the government, which can popularly “solve” the issue by denying the Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State the rights they should enjoy, while at the same time distracting the Rakhine Buddhist nationalists from other important issues: autonomy and a fair share of the state’s natural resources.

Nobody suggests U Wirathu is on the government’s payroll. But his undiplomatic outbursts are certainly not hurting Nay Pyi Taw’s political agenda.

This Article first appeared in the January 29, 2015 edition of Mizzima Weekly.

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