His detractors call him the “Buddhist Bin Laden”. He does not deny this although he chooses to liken himself to James Bond for his ” nationalist outlook”. He has no political party and no poll candidates – yet he is turning out to be the most talked about factor in Myanmar’s coming general elections.
He is Ashin Wirathu, the leading figure of the Association to Protect Race and Religion or Ma Ba Tha (in Myanmarese), the militant Buddhist religious body trying to whip up a majoritarian backlash against the minority Rohingya Muslim population.
Elbowing out Ywa Ma Sayadaw, the founder and chairman of Ma Ba Tha, to the sidelines, Wirathu, a central committee member of the organization, could successfully turn the global searchlight on to himself in recent times when he called Yanghee Lee, the United Nations human rights expert, a “bitch” and a “whore” for advocating citizenship for the Rohingyas. Wirathu’s association with the military junta is too transparent as, in spite of being handed a 25-years prison term for association with violent activities, he was released by the junta in 2010.
The Ma Ba Tha has recently prevailed upon the Thein Sein government to enact four laws which are certain to influence the voting pattern of the majority community by playing on its fear of getting submerged by Muslims. Of the four laws, the first one stipulates a mandatory 36-month-gap for giving birth to a second child while the second one has made official permission necessary for Buddhist women to marry outside their religion and ethnicity. By the third law, religious conversion has been made nearly impossible as official permission has become necessary. The fourth one has ensured monogamy.
Although Aung San Suu Kyi, the chairperson of the National League for Democracy (NLD), has claimed that her party would win 80 percent of the electable seats (there are provisions of 25 percent reserved seats for the army in the parliament) there are signs that she has been rattled by the Ma Ba Tha’s rise. Muslims are conspicuous by their absence in NLD’s list of candidates. Since her release from captivity, Suu Kyi has refused to sympathize with the pathetic plight of the Rohingya Muslims in spite of repeated proddings from the Dalai Lama. The Union Solidarity and Development Party(USDP), a proxy of the junta and one of the main contenders for power in the coming election, has also dropped some weighty and influential Muslim names from its list too.
Ma Ba Tha has now brazenly cast off the veneer of neutrality which it earlier used to sport. “If we have to choose the best, it is President Thein Sein’s government”, Wirathu has publicly declared. “NLD people are so full of themselves. They don’t have a high chance of winning in elections,” the fiery monk says.
The NLD also knows that Ma Ba Tha is a vital factor and that is why it is desperately trying to curry favour with Wirathu. A video recently went viral in which U Tin Oo, a senior member of the NLD and a former commander-in-chief of the Myanmar army who is personally very close to Aung San Suu Kyi, is seen kneeling before Wirathu’s feet and being hectored by the monk. The NLD veteran is 88-years-old.
The USDP, clearly the front organization of the army, is ready to define nationalism in the majority community’s ethno-religious perspective, a thing which the NLD is still not fully prepared to accept. This has made Wirathu and the Ma Ba Tha support the USDP. Otherwise, the monk still has some soft corner for the NLD. He has a peacock tattoo on his left arm. Interestingly, the peacock is the NLD’s official insignia. Perhaps the monk still cannot forget the torture that the army had let loose on Buddhist monks on several earlier occasions.
The USDP-led government is leaving no stone unturned to keep Ashin Wirathu in good humour. Htinfin Oo, a former NLD information officer, was recently sentenced to two years hard labour for “offending religious feelings”. In October 2014 he had criticized discrimination on racial and religious grounds in a talk he had delivered at a literary event.
The Rohingya Muslim issue has suddenly given a violent turn to Myanmar politics and as things look like now, the coming election will be fought on the question of Myanmarese nationalism which is, in the words of Wirathu, under threat from the burgeoning Muslim population. Officially, Muslims constitute five percent of the country’s population. But Wirathu thinks that the number is much more. He calls the Rohingyas “koewin”, or sneak-ins, Bengalis who have come from Bangladesh. The monk has 62,000 Facebook followers. He enjoys an official Android App which constantly propagates Wirathu views, homilies and agitational exhortations.
If the USDP wins the election then militant Buddhism may come out as a new force in not only Myanmar but in some other countries of South and Southeast Asia.
(Amitava Mukherjee is a senior journalist and commentator. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)