In recent months, international media has reported on the sporadic violence and ethnic tensions which have gripped the fledgling south-east Asian country of Burma. Reports show how the majority Buddhist population has conducted an almost systematic programme of harassment, persecution and violence against the minority population of Rohingya Muslims in the Rakhine state, which has seen hundreds of thousands of Muslims displaced to make-shift refugee camps, and dozens killed.
This week, Burma has once again been in full view of international media. In a Time magazine article entitled “The Face of Buddhist Terror”, Hannah Beech delivers a brutally honest account of the violence protracted by Burma’s Buddhists, writing candidly of the radical 969 movement who are held to be largely responsible for the protraction of such violence, and giving an unsympathetic exposé of the leader of this movement, monk Ashin Wirathu. Though his appearance suggests calm and compassion, his message—Beech contends— “crackles with hate”.
The article was particularly contentious because it claimed that Wirathu had been describing himself as the ‘Burmese Bin Laden’. Whilst the actual origin of the name is uncertain, Wirathu has denied using it, and instead accuses Muslims of labelling him as such.
Beech’s article, while alerting the international community to the situation in Burma, has triggered protests from a largely Buddhist population. They question the truth of Beech’s scathing attack on the figure who is, for many, a symbol of a future for the Buddhist population of Burma, as well as Beech’s suggestion that the 969 groups actions amount to acts of terror.
Indeed, since the article’s its release, Burmese president Thein Sein has banned the issue of Time and his office has released a statement criticising those “few individuals who are acing contrary to most of Myamnar [Burma]” and confirming that 969 is a “symbol of peace” and Wirathu “a son of Lord Buddha”. Reports also suggest that the government gave Burma’s Buddhists permission to protest against what has been portrayed by state apparatus as a sensationalist and vehemently inaccurate piece of western journalism.
Wirathu has also spoken out against the “savage attack” on him which has been heard all over the world. He chastises Beech for the “deceit” which underlies her “sweet words”, comparing them to “a blade covered by honey”. He accuses Beech of misquoting the words which he has preached, and argues that he and the 969 wish only to uphold the three gems: Buddha, Dharma (Truth) and Sangha (the Buddhist community). It is clear that Wirathu’s main bone of contention is the apparent untruths which form the foundation of Beech’s scathing attack: “My preaching is not burning with hatred as you say,” he maintains in the same interview, “Only your writing is full of hate.”
What is to be made of the fact that Wirathu has taken such offence and spoken so passionately against Beech’s suggestions in her article for Time? Can Wirathu’s suggestions that he and the 969 desire peace and calm and wish to avoid acts of terror—thinking only of “our National cause, our Culture and our Faith”—be taken seriously?
A Human Rights Watch report, All You Can Do Is Pray, has categorised attacks by Rakhine’s Buddhists against the Rohingya Muslims as “ethnic cleansing” and crimes against humanity. This perception is reinforced further by news that on 25th May, authorities in Rakhine state announced a policy imposing a two-child limit on Muslim Rohingya families in two western townships.
There are further reports that on 4th July, a group of senior Buddhist monks met in Rangoon to begin drafting a law which would put restriction on marriages between Buddhists and Muslims. Opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has spoken to reporters and openly criticised this news, stating that if true, as it has been suggested, it constitutes discrimination and a violation of human rights.
Although at present, there is arguably insufficient proof to point the finger of blame at who precisely is responsible for the violence against Burma’s Muslim minority, reports that the President’s office have spoken out against Beech’s article and given its official support and approval to Ashin Wirathu and the 969 movement suggest that a clandestine collusion is not, practically at least, outside the realms of possibility.
What might be of greater concern to western onlookers is the incremental threat which is emerging against the Rohingya. With the official line backing the actions of the dominant Buddhist population, who can predict when this state of affairs may erupt uncontrollably and be transformed into something altogether different, and much worse, realising erstwhile fears of discrimination and ethnic cleansing? And with the opinions expressed by western media achieving naught but adding fuel to an already turbulent situation, the question arises of how exactly calm is going to be restored?