One of Myanmar’s most notorious extremist Buddhist monks, U Wirathu, has turned himself in to authorities after over a year in hiding from charges of sedition against Aung San Suu Kyi’s government. The move is likely a political tactic as the country is days away from a general election.
With less than a week until Myanmar’s general election on November 8, the fugitive extremist monk U Wirathu has turned himself in to authorities in Yangon after 18 months on the run from charges of sedition.
The monk is notorious for his inflammatory Buddhist nationalism and for encouraging violence and discrimination against Muslims. He has been on the run since May 2019 after the Yangon regional government issued a warrant for his arrest and if convicted, he may face up to 20 years in prison.
“I would like to request my fellow monks around the country to ask their followers to vote for the parties that work to protect the country’s race and religion,” the monk told a gathering of his supporters this week before turning himself in. U Wirathu has become a key supporter of Myanmar’s military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).
Myanmar’s upcoming election has already been marred by a series of setbacks, including a move to cancel voting in many areas and other decisions that have disenfranchised millions of ethnic minority voters.
U Wirathu stands accused of stoking religious and other violence in Myanmar, especially against Myanmar’s Rohingya and other Muslim communities. Time magazine has dubbed him the “Burmese Bin Laden” in recent years.
Before turning himself in on November 2, he called the NLD “evil” as he spoke publicly to supporters in Yangon, adding “please do your part by eliminating this evil crap bird party”—a reference to the NLD flag, which features a peacock.
U Wirathu made no clear statement this week as to why he has turned himself in to authorities, but the timing of his decision, just days before the election, suggests it is part of a tactic to hurt the NLD.
“Many believe that he was controlled by the former military who want to destabilize the upcoming election,” Myanmar analyst Lawrence Mung Song told AsiaNews. “[He] can still create chaos in Myanmar, especially in this election. This is why many human rights groups and political activists are concerned [that he will be] released.”
The jailing of a Buddhist leader like U Wirathu is a potentially powerful symbol for much of Myanmar.
“We think he must have planned to give himself up at a critical time like this,” NLD spokesman Monywa Aung Shin told Radio Free Asia, adding that the monk was “attempting to complicate the situation in the elections.”
Myanmar analyst Richard Horsey pointed out that the move is in line with U Wirathu’s track record of political ploys.
“By grabbing headlines just before elections [he] will hope to portray the NLD government as the enemy of Buddhist nationalism,” Horsey told AFP, though he added that the tactic is unlikely to garner support beyond hardline nationalists.
Wanted for sedition
The warrant against U Wirathu stems from comments he made against de-facto leader State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) government during speeches in 2019.
At a rally in Yangon last May, the monk attacked the government and said the people should “worship” Myanmar’s military-appointed lawmakers. He has been a vocal campaigner on behalf of the military government, attempting to organize public opposition to constitutional amendments that would limit the military’s power in the civilian government.
The charges against the monk may also be related to a speech he gave a month earlier in which he attacked Aung San Suu Kyi.
“[She] only knows how to put on makeup, wear fashion and walk in high heels. What’s more, [she] likes to shake her ass when [she] sees foreigners,” he said during the speech in Tanintharyi region’s Myeik in April 2019.
“The country is doomed to become the one that General [Aung San] predicted,” he added, referring to the Burmese independence hero and father of Aung San Suu Kyi, who said that the new state’s people must work hard or they would have to resort to prostitution. U Wirathu has made similarly misogynistic comments in the past about the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, among others.
Extremist monk finds common ground with Myanmar’s military
The monk’s stance in favor of military government is notable given that he was previously imprisoned by the same military leadership he now supports. In 2003, he was jailed by the ruling junta on a number of charges, including inciting religious violence, following an anti-Muslim riot.
After his release in 2010, U Wirathu found common ground with the military in part due to his anti-Muslim hate speech. In September 2012, he and hundreds of other monks led a rally in support of a plan to deport the country’s entire Rohingya population, proposed by then-President Thein Sein.
Soon after, in 2014, U Wirathu and others founded the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, known by its acronym Ma Ba Tha. The group served as a new centerpoint for the Buddhist extremists’ anti-Muslim organizing. Ma Ba Tha intentionally stoked public fear of the threat posed by “jihadi Muslims” in communities across Myanmar and has played a major role in violent intercommunal violence targeting Muslims.
The government banned the group in May 2017 but its leadership has since rebranded the association as the Buddha Dhamma Prahita Foundation. In its current incarnation, the group has received donations from the military as recently as June 2019, with military spokesperson Brigadier-General Zaw Min Tun calling the group “necessary.”
Facebook, Myanmar Buddhist authorities struggle to stem hate speech crisis
Buddhist authorities and fellow clergy in Myanmar, from the local to the national level, have condemned U Wirathu’s hate speech. In October 2017, the country’s clerical governing body, the State Sangha Council or Sangha Maha Nayaka, banned him from preaching for his anti-Muslim rhetoric and his role in fueling violence against the Rohingya. Authorities in Thailand have also previously banned him from preaching and in late 2019, a Myanmar court froze the monk’s bank accounts.
U Wirathu gained notoriety in part through daily posts on Facebook that spread hateful misinformation and were shared widely by users in Myanmar across the social network. After his account gained hundreds of thousands of followers, Facebook banned the monk in 2018 for promoting hatred against religious groups.
While his motives for giving himself up are not clear, the monk’s arrest has the potential to affect the November 8 vote across the country.