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Buddhist Leader Spreads Hatred of Muslims in Myanmar

The Wall Street Journal logo The Wall Street Journal 10/14/2017 James Hookway
A Rohingya refugee child gets an oral cholera vaccine, distributed by the World Health Organisation (WHO) with the help of volunteers and local NGO's, in a refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh Oct. 11, 2017. Rohingya Refugee Crisis

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HPA-AN, Myanmar—The Venerable Wirathu hitched up his orange robes, stepped up onto a stage on a recent Sunday and tapped the microphone.

“What kind of people are these Muslims?” he barked as a crowd of 1,000 in this small town east of Yangon cheered him on. “Do they eat rice through their backsides and excrete through their mouths? They are the opposite of everything in nature.”

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Ven. Wirathu, the abbot of the Masoeyein monastery in Mandalay, has taken a leading role in spreading the anti-Muslim sentiment among Myanmar’s Buddhist majority that has underpinned the army’s campaign against the ethnic Rohingya minority.

© ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images Since the military released Ven. Wirathu from prison in 2012 after he had served nine years of a 25-year sentence for inciting religious riots, he has traveled and taken to YouTube and Facebook to whip up resentment against the stateless group, alongside other less prominent Buddhist hard-liners.

In recent weeks, the army and allied militias have attacked Rohingya villages, driving hundreds of thousands of people to seek refuge in neighboring Bangladesh in a campaign that Bangladesh authorities say has left 3,000 people dead.

The United Nations Human Rights Office in a new report Wednesday said the purge was planned in advance, and accused troops of using rape as weapon. The agency’s chief, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, described Myanmar’s actions as a “cynical ploy to forcibly transfer large numbers of people without possibility of return.”

Myanmar officials have rejected accounts that members of the military have committed rape and murder of Rohingya and torched their villages.

Civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi hasn’t publicly challenged the generals orchestrating the clearances. In her silence, a vacuum has developed, “and the nationalists and radical monks are filling it,” said former U.S. Ambassador Derek Mitchell. And while she has tried to curb Ven. Wirathu—banning him from preaching after he applauded the killing of a Muslim lawyer this year—the abbot simply pivoted to addressing political rallies like the one in Hpa-an.

Interviews with people who know Ven. Wirathu paint a picture of man who was stung in childhood by his father’s death and came under the sway of Myanmar’s military establishment.

Ven. Wirathu declined to comment for this article. The military didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Ven. Wirathu, who is now 49, was born Win Khaing Oo in Kyaukse, a dusty town a short drive from Mandalay. His father was a retired soldier who drank heavily, friends and neighbors said. His mother did laundry for neighbors to help make ends meet.

Win Khaing Oo used to kick a ball about with a neighbor and classmate, Ko Than Mani. “We were close. We did everything together,” Mr. Ko Than Mani said.

After his father died, Win Khaing Oo’s mother began a relationship with a Muslim shopkeeper. Not long after, at the age of 14, the boy entered the monkhood and took his monastic name.

“He changed after that,” Mr. Ko Than Mani said.

Ven. Wirathu was viewed by many as a talented preacher as a young man, said a former neighbor who knew him well, Pyar Nyar Thiri. He appears to have been particularly receptive to the teachings of a former monk and military officer named Kyaw Lwin, according to senior monks who know him.

Mr. Kyaw Lwin, who died several years ago, founded a Buddhist university and warned that the country needed to turn the faith into a buffer against the Muslim population in Bangladesh and, on the other side of Myanmar, China’s growing influence.

In 2003, Ven. Wirathu began to take action on his own, Mr. Ko Than Mani said. In Kyaukse, he began handing out pamphlets accusing local Muslims of trying to take over his hometown. He also accused Muslim men of taking advantage of Buddhist women. Mr. Ko Than Mani said Ven. Wirathu tried to enlist his help in distributing the pamphlets, but he refused.

“I tried to reason with him, but he wouldn’t listen,” Mr. Ko Than Mani said.

Shortly after, a crowd of Buddhists burned down two mosques and two people were killed. Ven. Wirathu was arrested and handed the 25-year sentence.

In prison in Mandalay, the monk would share special lunches that no one else received, according to a former political prisoner who shared a cell with him.

“He told us it was from military intelligence,” said the cellmate, Mg Hmaing Lwin. “The food was so good: homemade dishes like fish curries, and lots of rice. It was so different from what we ordinary prisoners received. We would just get scraps of rice, and once a week we could choose between a boiled egg or some pork gristle.”

Mr. Mg Hmaing Lwin, now a published poet, said a former military intelligence officer named Moe Thu was in the same prison after falling victim to one of the army’s periodic internal purges.

“He told us how Ven. Wirathu was recruited” before his imprisonment, Mr. Mg Hmaing Lwin said, which in Myanmar could entail anything from being an informer to carrying out tasks for the military. “He said they used his family background and his resentment toward Muslims for their own purposes.”

Mr. Mg Hmaing Lwin said Ven. Wirathu would talk about how military intelligence looked after him but never discussed his ties in more details.

Mr. Moe Thu acknowledged working with military intelligence but declined to comment further.

In 2012, with Ms. Suu Kyi and other members of her political party preparing to enter the country’s parliament, Ven. Wirathu was released early. Authorities flew him to an airstrip near his monastery in Mandalay. Hundreds of monks were waiting to welcome him. An aide to the country’s retired military leader Gen. Than Shwe visited him there, as seen in photos of the event. So did the former head of military intelligence, Khin Nyunt, who also served as prime minister until he was purged in 2004 and forced to spend eight years in prison. Mr. Khin Nyunt declined to comment.

Ven. Wirathu resumed his anti-Muslim sermons. In September 2012, after communal riots erupted in Rakhine State, where Myanmar’s Rohingya population was concentrated, he led a march of monks through Mandalay to support the military’s plans to send the Rohingya to a third country. Saying that it is impossible to sleep next to a mad dog, he warned that if Buddhists didn’t stand up and take action, Myanmar would become an Islamic nation.

Shortly after fresh clashes erupted in Rakhine State. In 2012, 160 Rohingya were killed and 140,000 fled their homes. The following March, Buddhist mobs killed dozens of Muslims in the town of Meiktila, not far from Mandalay.

In the years since, Ven. Wirathu has since gained in prominence; he was the subject of a 2016 documentary by Barbet Schroeder. He last visited Rakhine State in May 2017, when he repeated his support for Buddhist villagers and met with border security forces.

In a population that remains around 4% Muslim even excluding the Rohingya, there are signs that the monk is again expanding his range of targets.

“Myanmar doesn’t have only a Bengali problem,” he told the crowd in Hpa-an, using a local term for the Rohingya. “It has a Muslim problem.”

Write to James Hookway at james.hookway@wsj.com

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