Buddhist monk Ashin Wirathu waves to his followers before turning himself in at a Yangon police station on Nov. 2. (Photo: AFP)
Ultranationalist monk Ashin Wirathu, who is notorious for anti-Muslim rhetoric, has recently reappeared in public life in Myanmar after hiding as a fugitive for 18 months.
The monk was wanted on sedition charges for his verbal attacks on Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her government following a warrant issued in July 2019.
He reportedly said last year that he would face the lawsuit but he has been in hiding since then until he turned up at a police station in Yangon on Nov. 2.
In a video shared on Facebook, Wirathu told a group of supporters that his conscience was not clear as a fugitive, so he decided to surrender to police after meeting with a senior monk from the Sangha, the main Buddhist body.
Waving at supporters and smiling, the monk was seen at the police station along with dozens of monks and laypeople.
On Nov. 3, the monk appeared via video link and was officially remanded in custody by Yangon's western district court, which set the next hearing for Nov. 17. He is now being held at Insein prison.
A group of monks stood outside holding a banner reading “We love Wirathu” along with lay supporters who wore T-shirts bearing pictures of Wirathu.
The monk was charged under the sedition law after he attacked Suu Kyi in a speech on May 5, 2019, claiming “she shakes her butt when meeting with foreigners,” according to transcripts submitted to the court, reported by news outlet Myanmar Now.
The sedition law prohibits anyone from provoking disaffection, hatred or contempt towards the government and it carries a punishment of three years in prison.
The reappearance of Wirathu came just six days ahead of Myanmar’s important Nov. 8 general election, which is seen as a test of the country's transition to democracy.
Local observers say the move is not a coincidence and is an attempt to turn up the political heat on Suu Kyi’s government and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party, which is tipped to win a second term.
On the same day as the monk’s reappearance in Yangon, nationalists in Mandalay and Yangon distributed pamphlets and stickers to the public urging them to vote for parties who are safeguarding the race and religion of the country.
Wirathu accused Suu Kyi’s government of forcing him into a life on the run and he told his supporters not to vote for the "evil bird" party, which has a peacock logo with the red flag of the NLD.
He also told people “to vote for those who will protect race and religion.”
Burmese Bin Laden
The figurehead of the anti-Muslim movement, Mandalay-based Wirathu was arrested for his sermons and sentenced to 25 years in prison under the former military regime in 2003. In 2010, he was among the first prisoners to be released as part of an amnesty that has led to hundreds of political detainees being freed by the current reformist government.
Since then, he has called for Buddhists not to marry Muslims, a boycott of Muslim businesses and Rohingya to be expelled to Muslim countries.
Wirathu’s historic brand of extreme Buddhist nationalism and anti-Muslim rhetoric was seen by some as a growing force in Myanmar society where Buddhist monks are held in high regard.
His anti-Muslim rhetoric fueled communal riots in 2013 and 2014.
The monk hit the international headlines and Time magazine referred to him as the “Burmese Bin Laden” due to his strong views on the growing population of minority Muslims, especially Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine.
Wirathu is one of the leaders of the Buddhist hardline group-Ma Ba Tha (the Committee for the Protection of Race and Religion), which had strong backing from former military officials from the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) under former president Thein Sein.
Thanks to Suu Kyi’s NLD government following a public outcry, a government-appointed body that regulates Myanmar’s Buddhist clergy banned the Ma Ba Tha in 2018 and ordered it to remove its posters and signboards or face punishment under both Buddhist and secular laws.
Ma Ba Tha was established in 2013 and was influential in lobbying for a raft of so-called race and religion laws that were passed by the military-backed government before the 2015 election.
It was a strong supporter of former president Thein Sein, a former army general whose political party was trounced in 2015 by the NLD.
The hate-peddling monk was barred in March 2017 from giving sermons for a year by the State Sangha Committee, which oversees the practice of Buddhism, for engaging in religious hate speech.
The monk, however, made a return to public life in 2018 in rallies where he publicly supported Myanmar’s military generals accused of genocide over a brutal crackdown on Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state.
His rhetoric has shifted from espousing anti-Muslim sentiment to emphasizing a pro-military stance and criticizing Suu Kyi and her government’s performance.
At a rally in Yangon in May 2018, the monk told thousands of supporters that “soldiers should be worshipped like gods as they protect the country while taking only a soldier’s salary.”
Wirathu opposed any change to Myanmar’s military-drafted constitution barring Suu Kyi from ever becoming the nation’s president because she previously married a foreigner.
The 2008 constitution enshrines a political role for the armed forces as one quarter of the seats in national and regional legislatures are reserved for military officers appointed by the commander-in-chief along with one of the two vice-presidential positions.
It also controls the three important portfolios of home affairs, defense and border.
The International Crisis Group, a think tank, said whichever political party wins the election will thus be required to share power with the military, a largely autonomous and Burman-dominated institution whose commander-in-chief does not answer to the civilian president or the courts.
“This feature of Myanmar’s system is both undemocratic in principle and problematic in practice, as it creates a dyadic government whose frequent dysfunction stymies progress on key issues such as the peace process, accountability for military crimes or scrutiny of military budgets,” the group said in a report on Oct. 22.