U Wirathu is a 45-year-old Buddhist monk from Mandalay’s Masoeyein Monastery who has acquired notoriety for spreading anti-Muslim sentiments under his nationalist “969” campaign. It encourages Burmese Buddhists to shun Muslim businesses and communities.
U Wirathu was sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2003 for inciting religious conflicts, but was released in January 2012. In October, he organized protests against the international Organization of Islamic Cooperation’s plan to open a Burma office.
In a recent interview with The Irrawaddy’s Thalun Zaung Htet he blames some of the communal violence in Meikhtila on March 20-22 on the Islamic community, and claims his campaign played no role in the anti-Islamic unrest.
QUESTION: According to government figures, the death toll of the conflict in Meikhtila is 42. You went there to stop the rioters, why have there been so many deaths?
ANSWER: The death toll was highest on the second day of the unrest and most victims were Muslims who were stuck inside a mosque, mainly Muslim students from the madrassa and some civilians. Local village officials had hid them there to protect them.
After that, at 4 am early morning when the police guards were gone, the hidden Muslims became agitated and shouted slogans in unison. So the townspeople found out the Muslims are there and then they were surrounded. To the left of the group was a mosque and at the right side there was a burned area and in front there was a field, so there was no place for them to run. Then, one of the Muslims shot a slingshot at one of the Buddhist monks and the crowd became angry. Then they [the Muslims] threw bags containing acid at the crowd, which had just stood and watched the situation. The Muslims stayed inside but continued to throw things. I was there on the night of 20th March and [88 Generation Student leader] Min Ko Naing and [dissident monk] Shwe Nya Wah Sayadaw, were also there. Then, 20 Muslim people came out and fought with the Burmese crowd outside. Then people died there, almost 10, 11 deaths occurred. Security personnel saved the rest of the persons in hiding. These were the most deaths that occurred at one spot in Meikhtila. Other casualties were burned in fires. The only group killing was this case, the other deadly incidents involved just one or two people.
Q: The UN secretary-general’s special rapporteur on Burma Vijay Nambiar and international media outlets have said the Meikhtila riots were acts of planned violence. What do you think of these allegations?
A: On the first and second day, there was no systematic violence. Actually, on first day, people living in the kalar [derogatory term for Muslim] quarter were systematically [attacking]. They were carrying knives, sticks and other weapons and attacked the Burmese. When the crowd heard that one monk was killed during the unrest, they went to the kalar quarter without weapons. Only one Burmese person out of ten carried a stick from the ruined houses, and no other weapons. When they clashed Muslims used knives and many were hurt. Two died and 16 were injured. The injuries were from severe knife cuts. So, the planned attacks came from the Muslim quarters. Until the second day nothing was planned.
Q: Currently, international media report that “Buddhist extremists” are leading the “969” campaign. Can you tell us more about your campaign?
A: Sure. The first 9 stands for the nine special attributes of the Lord Buddha and the 6 for the six special attributes of his Dhamma, or Buddhist Teachings, and the last 9 represents the nine special attributes of Buddhist Sanga [monks]. Those special attributes are the three Gems of the Buddha. In the past, the Buddha, Sangha, Dhamma and the wheel of Dhamma were Buddhists’ sign. And the same goes for 969; it is another Buddhist sign.
Now people blame 969, saying it is involved in the atrocities because they cannot find the real culprits. [But] the 969 leaflets were not found and no one distributed it in Meikthila. When I came and made a sermon there, I shared 25 stickers and it says “Save Our Future”. The 969 campaign was made the culprit, but actually it is innocent as it only represents the special attributes of the Buddha.
Q: Houses, shops and mosques were destroyed in Pegu Division and the 969 was spray-painted on damaged cars and Muslim buildings in Gyobingauk Township. What can you say about the fact that your symbol was painted there?
A: I don’t have any contacts in Pegu. So I have no idea. There was no problem in the place where I have formed and organized my campaign and it goes in accordance with my rules. And, I have been told about many cases, such as cases of fighting between Burmese and Muslims and rape cases of 4 and 7-grade girls. Most rape victims are students. Other cases are physically attacks and insulting to Buddhism—to tell you the truth, there was a case of verbal abuse of monks. Other cases include illegal mosques; mosques and Muslim graveyards constructed without government permission. I’m received over 50 such cases and I provided suggestions in over 100 cases. I told them to solve the cases in accordance with the law and most take my advice, even the senior monks. Everything is fine as I deal with the cases within the law. In our community, the real 969 [campaigners] do not use violence.
Q: The Ministry of Religion in Naypyidaw said 969 is not officially recognized as a Buddhist symbol. Can I ask for your views on this matter?
A: Sure. We share it in ways that we can. We don’t register it to distribute it legally. For example, some prepare the symbol, and others donate and distribute it. We don’t register it as our official trademark symbol for our movement.
Q: In your sermon “Don’t take nationalism lightly”, you preached that Min Ko Naing and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi could not achieve much [for Burmese Buddhists] and that the National League for Democracy is not a real fighting peacock [the NLD’s symbol], but it is a peacock fighting for Muslims. Can you comment on this sermon?
A: I have been supporting Daw Aung San Suu Kyi through the years, but she was not a reliable leader during the Arakan State [sectarian] unrest. I think it is because of the people around her. And also, nearly every NLD township office is operated by Muslims. Because of them, Burmese coming there are turned back. In some towns, as the NLD offices are rented from Muslim house owners, the NLD members don’t offer meals to monks on the day of General Aung San [Burma’s Martyr’s Day] as it is prohibited by the house owners.
So I said the symbol of the NLD peacock is becoming a symbol for Muslims. I rely so much on the [88 Generation Students] group of Min Ko Naing as the second biggest opposition force and I have much hope for them in the future. But they are not very reliable in supporting the public in the case of the Arakan State riots. They don’t stand on the side of the public. After helping refugees in Arakan they made a press conference on the issues. That’s all. They don’t issue a specific statement to say that Rohingyas [Muslims] are not a recognized national minority [in Burma] and they should condemn the killing of Arakanese [Buddhists] by Bengalis [Muslims]. So as a man who is supposed to stand for justice and against injustice, Min Ko Naing was not standing up for justice in the Arakan unrest. This is what I said in my sermon.
Q: In your sermons, you said that people must not support Muslim business marked with the sign “786” (a numeral used by Muslims on the Indian subcontinent representing a phrase in the Quran). Does it create discrimination, hatred and mistrust between communities?
A: Well, it is not the Burmese way, but a Muslim way and do they practice this [marking their shops with “786”]. So go around the town and see how many Muslims are visiting Burmese shops. If they support their own shops, why won’t we Buddhist [Burmese] do the same? If we support our Burmese shops, we will not have problems and it cannot be that bad. Look what happened in Meikhtila, if people support the Burmese gold shops then there would not have been an argument. [The unrest in Meikthila supposedly began as a fight between a Muslim gold shop owner and a Buddhist customer.] This kind of buying behavior doesn’t mean its discrimination. It can protect our people’s interests.
Q: Now conflict and fear is spreading in the communities. How can it be stopped?
A: After I was released from prison I always suggested to Muslim communities that we all should work and solve things together. Muslim communities should form their own groups and Burmese communities should form their own too. Those two communities must take actions for their own people when there are problems.
Q: President Thein Sein said in his recent speech that the government will take effective actions against those who exploit the noble teachings of these religions and have tried to plant hatred among people of different faiths for their own self-interest. What do you think of his words?
A: Of course, the government has to do it. But it would be more effective to take action against those who are behind the riots than just taking action on the ground. For example, like [taking actions against] imams. They brainwash children with hate speech against Buddhism. Their children look at Buddhist monks as if we were their enemy. They look at the Burmese people in the same way. That’s what’s really happening. So, the authorities have to try to take action against these instigators.