Ashin Wirathu: Myanmar and its vitriolic monk

Image source, AFP

Myanmar's most radical Buddhist monk is famed for his angry speeches, stoking fears that the Muslim minority will one day overrun the country.

Now Ashin Wirathu has drawn the ire of the UN by calling its special envoy to Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), Yanghee Lee, a "bitch" and a "whore".

BBC Burmese explains his rise, how other monks in Myanmar view him, why the government tolerates him and the anger women's groups feel.

Who is Ashin Wirathu?

Ten years ago the radical monk from Mandalay was virtually unheard of. Born in 1968, he left school at the age of 14 and entered the monkhood.

He became well known only after he was involved with the nationalist and anti-Muslim 969 group in 2001 - an organisation described as extremist, though that is a term the group's supporters reject.

In 2003 he was sentenced to 25 years in prison but was released in 2010 along with other political prisoners.

How did he come to public attention?

As government rules relaxed, he became more active on social media. He spread his message by posting his sermons on YouTube and on Facebook where he currently has more than 37,000 followers.

Image source, Facebook screengrab

In 2012, when deadly violence broke out in Rakhine state between Muslims, mainly Rohingya, and Buddhists, he was catapulted into public view with his firebrand speeches.

A typical sermon begins: "Whatever you do, do it as a nationalist."

His rhetoric has more than a whiff of political theatre. When asked if he was the "Burmese Bin Laden", he said he would not deny it. Other reports have quoted him as saying he works for peace.

What does he want?

On 1 July 2013, Time Magazine put him on their front cover with the headline: The Face of Buddhist Terror?


His sermons preach animosity and his target is the Muslim community, mainly the Rohingya. He led rallies supporting relocating Rohingya Muslims to a third country.

He has also blamed Muslims for the clashes and repeats unsubstantiated claims about reproduction rates. Analysts say such sentiments stoked an already febrile situation in areas where violence unfolded.

He also claims that Buddhist women are being converted by force and is leading a campaign for legislation to prevent Burmese Buddhist women from marrying other faiths without official permission.

So who speaks out against him in Myanmar?

The fear among many is that violent vigilantes support his views, which means that anyone who speaks out against him runs the risk of becoming a target.

This partly explains the ambiguous relationship various sectors of society have with him.

It is also complicated by the fact that on some issues, such as his opposition to Rohingya Muslims being granted citizenship, Wirathu has widespread support.


What do other Buddhist monks say?

Many will remember that Buddhist monks led the 2007 "saffron" uprising against Myanmar's military junta. Wirathu's message does not attract support anywhere near that.

But many monks in Myanmar have remained tight-lipped in the face of his rhetorical onslaught. Part of it could be fear of reprisals.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Some monks have supported proposals for a nationality law restricting marriages
Image source, EPA
Image caption,
It was when Yanghee Lee criticised these nationality laws that he insulted her

He presides over 2,500 monks at his monastery in Mandalay and some policies are supported - a conference aimed at "safeguarding women" was well attended by monks.

So it is almost impossible to say how far he is supported by the community of monks at large - but tension is palpable.

Some have spoken out to criticise him. Burmese monk U Ottara told BBC Burmese of his shock in the wake of the recent comments.

"I feel very sad. I can say that those are not the kind of words for a monk to use."

The fear is that Wirathu is fast becoming the image of Burmese Buddhism to the outside world - one that is surely unrepresentative.

Why doesn't the government stop him?

A nominally civilian government now runs Myanmar after nearly half a century of military rule. But deadly religious clashes have marred the image of a state on a slow road to reform.

However, many believe that Wirathu is tolerated by the government because he gives voice to popular views, particularly about Rohingya Muslims, which they could not voice themselves for diplomatic reasons.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Thousands of Rohingya have been displaced by violence in Rakhine

The Ministry of Religious Affairs has confirmed it will not act against him until they receive a complaint. The government has so far failed to condemn the latest comments about Ms Lee.

How do women feel?

This is one group that voices consistent opposition. Women's activists have opposed his campaign vociferously.

General Secretary of the Women's League of Burma Tin Tin Nyo said of his comments that: "He gives our country a bad reputation... He damages the robes that he is wearing. "

She also said that his campaign to introduce a law to limit Buddhist women marrying other faiths is not a form of protection but control: "Women can decide who to marry and what religion to be".

She says many ordinary women and young activists, who would oppose him more vociferously, face reluctance from their parents, an older generation which has an inbuilt reverence for the clergy.

BBC Burmese' Soe Win Than and Ko Ko Aung contributed to this report.