TAUNGGYI, Myanmar — After a ritual prayer atoning for past sins, Ashin Wirathu, a Buddhist monk with a rock-star following in Myanmar, sat before thousands of followers and launched into a rant against what he called the “enemy:” the country’s Muslim minority.
“You can be full of kindness and love, but you cannot sleep next to a mad dog,” Wirathu said, referring to Muslims.
“I call them troublemakers, because they are troublemakers,” Wirathu said in an interview after his two-hour sermon. “I am proud to be called a radical Buddhist.”
The world has grown accustomed to a gentle image of Buddhism defined by the self-effacing words of the Dalai Lama, the global popularity of Buddhist-inspired meditation and postcard-perfect scenes from Southeast Asia of crimson-robed, barefoot monks receiving alms from villagers.
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But in the past year, images of rampaging Burmese Buddhists carrying swords and the vituperative sermons of monks like Wirathu have underlined the rise of extreme Buddhism in Myanmar, also known as Burma. Buddhist lynch mobs have killed more than 200 Muslims and forced more than 150,000 people, mostly Muslims, from their homes.
Wirathu denies any role in the riots. But his critics say that at the very least, his preaching is helping to inspire the violence.
What began last year on the fringes of Burmese society has grown into a nationwide fundamentalist movement. Its message is spreading through regular sermons across the country that draw thousands of people and through widely distributed DVDs of those talks. Buddhist monasteries associated with the movement are also opening community centers and a Sunday school program for 60,000 Buddhist children nationwide.
The hate-filled speeches and violence have endangered Myanmar’s path to democracy, raising questions about the government’s ability to keep the country’s towns and cities safe and its willingness to crack down or prosecute Buddhists in a Buddhist-majority country.
The killings have also reverberated in Muslim countries across the region, tarnishing what was almost universally seen abroad as a remarkable and rare peaceful transition from military rule to democracy. In May, Indonesian authorities foiled what they said was a plot to bomb the Myanmar Embassy in Jakarta in retaliation for the assaults on Muslims.
Jailed for eight years
Wirathu, the spiritual leader of the radical movement, skates a thin line between free speech and incitement, taking advantage of the new freedoms at a fragile time of transition. He was jailed for eight years for inciting hatred. Last year, as part of a release of hundreds of political prisoners, he was freed.
In his recent sermon, he described the reported massacre of schoolchildren and other Muslim inhabitants in the central city of Meiktila in March, documented by a human-rights group, as a show of strength.
“If we are weak,” he said, “our land will become Muslim.”
Buddhism would seem to have a secure place in Myanmar. Nine in 10 people are Buddhist, as are nearly all the top leaders in the business world, the government, the military and the police. Estimates of the Muslim minority range from 4 to 8 percent of Myanmar’s roughly 55 million people, while the rest are mostly Christian or Hindu.
But Wirathu says Buddhism is under siege by Muslims who have more children than Buddhists and buy up Buddhist-owned land. In part, he is tapping into historical grievances that date to British colonial days when many Muslims, were brought into the country as civil servants and soldiers.
The messages he has spread have alarmed other Buddhists.
The Dalai Lama, after the riots in March, said killing in the name of religion was “unthinkable” and urged Myanmar’s Buddhists to contemplate the face of the Buddha for guidance.
Phra Paisal Visalo, a Buddhist scholar and prominent monk in neighboring Thailand, says the notion of “us and them” promoted by Myanmar’s radical monks is anathema to Buddhism. But he lamented that criticism of other leading Buddhists outside the country have had “very little impact.”
Ashin Sanda Wara, the head of a monastic school in Yangon, says the monks in the country are divided nearly equally between moderates and extremists.
He considers himself in the moderate camp.
But as a measure of the deeply ingrained suspicions toward Muslims in the society, he said he was “afraid of Muslims because their population is increasing so rapidly.”
Wirathu has tapped into that anxiety, which some describe as the “demographic pressures” coming from neighboring Bangladesh.
“Ungrateful to us”
There is wide disdain in Myanmar for a group of about 1 million stateless Muslims, who call themselves Rohingya, some of whom migrated from Bangladesh. Clashes between the Rohingya and Buddhists last year in western Myanmar roiled the Buddhist community and appear to have played a role in later outbreaks of violence throughout the country. Wirathu said they served as his inspiration to spread his teachings.
The theme song to Wirathu’s movement speaks of people who “live in our land, drink our water, and are ungrateful to us.”
Many in Myanmar speculate, without offering proof, that Wirathu is allied with hard-line Buddhist elements in the country who want to harness the nationalism of his movement to rally support ahead of elections in 2015. Wirathu denies such links.
But the government has done little to rein him in. During Wirathu’s visit in Taunggyi, traffic policemen cleared intersections for his motorcade.
Wirathu’s movement calls itself 969, three digits that monks say symbolize the virtues of the Buddha, Buddhist practices and the Buddhist community.
Stickers with the movement’s logo are ubiquitous nationwide.
The movement has also begun a signature campaign calling for a ban on interfaith marriages, and pamphlets are distributed listing Muslim brands and shops to be avoided.
Many Muslims are worried. Two hours before Wirathu rolled into Taunggyi in a motorcade that included 60 honking motorcycles, Tun Tun Naing, a Muslim vendor in the central market, spoke of the visit in a whisper.
“I’m really frightened,” he said, stopping in midsentence when customers entered his shop.
“We tell the children not to go outside unless absolutely necessary.”