RANGOON — Time magazine’s July 1st cover, featuring a photo of nationalist monk U Wirathu as “The Face of Buddhist Terror,” has drawn criticism from Burma’s government, which is considering banning the issue. Some local media outlets have also condemned the cover.
President Thein Sein’s office issued a Burmese-language statement on Sunday defending Buddhism in Burma from any association with terror and violence.
“What Time magazine wrote can lead to a misunderstanding among some about the 1000-year-old, stable Buddhism in Burma […] and it is detrimental to the present struggle to reconcile inter-religious trust in Myanmar,” the statement said.
Time magazine Asia’s July 1st cover story explores the rise of aggressive, nationalist Buddhism in Burma and other parts of Asia, such as Sri Lanka, and describes the role of radical monk U Wirathu. His ‘969’ movement has called on the country’s Buddhist majority to shun Muslim-owned businesses and to “think in a nationalist way.”
In its statement, the government argued at length that Burmese Buddhism and the monkhood are “noble”, and that the original meaning of the Buddhist principles symbolized in 969 represents “peace”.
Deputy Minister of Information Ye Htut told The Irrawaddy, “Our message is very clear: Time’s writing can cause a misunderstanding among the international community; they might think that Buddha’s teachings involve terror.”
Ye Htut said Time’s July issue might be pulled from circulation. “We are considering banning the distribution of this issue in Myanmar. Currently, we are discussing with the Ministry of Religious Affairs what we should do,” he said.
Ye Htut stressed nonetheless that “the government does not side with U Wirathu [against Muslims],” adding that all religious groups in Burma are guaranteed freedom of religion under the Constitution.
Win Tin, senior member and co-founder of the National League for Democracy, Burma’s biggest opposition party, said the government would be wrong to ban Time’s July issue. “They should not ban it, but explain it to the people,” he said. “I think banning it is of no use at all.”
Win Tin, a former journalist, said he did not disapprove of the article labeling U Wirathu an extremist, but he added, “I don’t think you should couple the term terror with Buddhism because it can be very hard for the Buddhist people.”
During the past year, Burma has experienced waves of anti-Muslim violence, which first began in western Arakan State, before spreading to other parts of the country in recent months. Hundreds of people were killed and tens of thousands, mostly Muslims, were displaced.
Nationalist elements of the Burma’s revered Buddhist monkhood have spread anti-Muslim messages among the public, while some supposed monks were observed participating in attacks on Muslim minority communities.
Human rights groups accuse the government of being complicit in the anti-Muslim violence, out of fear for losing support among Burma’s Buddhist majority.
Time magazine’s cover also caught the attention of Burmese media. Many outlets ran front page stories over the weekend with photos and partial translations of Time’s article, along with reactions and opinion pieces that criticized the article for linking Buddhism with terror.
Dr. Than Htut Aung, the CEO of Eleven Media, a widely-read daily newspaper and weekly journal, said he objected to Time’s story. “Let me be clear, I don’t agree with the opinions of U Wirathu. We have different views,” he said in a statement issued on Saturday.
“But as a journalist, I think the Time magazine’s criticism is unfair and harmful to our religion and Sasana. Such acts can cause unnecessary conflict and will only serve to disrupt our fragile democratic transition. So I categorically oppose Time’s story.”
The man at the center of the controversy, U Wirathu, told The Irrawaddy in an interview on Sunday that Time magazine put him on their cover “because Islamic extremists want my downfall.”
In Facebook post on Monday, U Wirathu made note of the government’s reaction to the article. “We are happy with the government’s statement. Thank you Mr. President,” he wrote.