Sermon Canceled Over Concern Nationalist Monk Could Stir Trouble

By Nyein Nyein 3 May 2019

CHIANG MAI—Thai authorities in Phuket, in the far south of the country, have banned a sermon by the ultranationalist monk U Wirathu, scheduled to be held this Friday evening.

Myanmar migrant worker communities in Phuket usually organize the Dhamma sermons with Buddhist monks from Myanmar; this is the first time such an event has been prohibited, according to migrant worker advocacy groups.

When an invitation for the sermon went viral on Facebook, both supporters and opponents of the event were active in the comments sections, raising eyebrows among Thai security officials in Phuket, said U Htoo Chit, director of the Phang-nga-based Foundation for Education Development, in southern Thailand.

U Wirathu is widely known for promulgating hate speech targeting non-Buddhist religions as the leader of the 969 movement—a Burmese nationalist campaign targeting Muslims and Muslim-owned businesses in Myanmar. Many Myanmar migrant workers have voiced concern that his talk could incite tensions among different religious groups, especially between Buddhists and Muslims.

U Htoo Chit reached out to Thai religious and national security officials about the matter, who told him on Thursday that authorities had decided not to allow the sermon, he said.

“The Thai security committee (in Phuket) said they banned the sermon as U Wirathu is a monk who could be a problem. They said they would allow any other monks who are not as problematic as him,” said U Htoo Chit.

Opinon in Phuket’s Myanmar migrant communities remain divided.

“Some [migrant workers] groups…are concerned for any trouble that could follow his talk, as Phuket hosts many Thai Muslims and many Myanmar Muslims workers,” U Htoo Chit said. “If anything happens, the migrant workers from Myanmar would be the ones to suffer.”

But Ko Hein Thu, who helps arrange the regular Dhamma talks, said the service was canceled not because of Thai authorities but because of strong opposition to U Wirathu there.

“It is not because of the Thai authorities. There are people who like the Sayadaw (senior monk, U Wirathu), and those who don’t. We told his followers that the service was canceled if many people do not want (him speaking here),” he said.

Ko Hein Thu said organizers hold the religious talks almost every month and do not restrict any particular monk.

“We could not say what would possibly happen, but we were planning to request the Sayadaw not focus on politics, and focus on the Dhamma talk only,” said Ko Hein Thu.

But Myanmar community groups are worried that the mere arrival of U Wirathu, notorious for stirring up anti-Muslim sentiments in Myanmar, might be asking for trouble, especially in Phuket, where there are more than 200,000 registered Myanmar migrant workers, both Muslims and Buddhists.

“When we saw the invitation on Facebook, we were also asked by Phuket security personnel about the monk. His photo and background are easy to find on Google, many of which are not good,” said U Aung Naing, the director of the Andaman Friendship Association, a migrant rights group based in Phuket. “For me, I think this religious talk should not happen, because he is a problematic monk. If something happened, we, the migrant workers, would have to face the consequences. Thus, we object; we do not want any trouble for respectful monks at these events in the future.”

Myanmar migrant workers should follow any Thai rules and regulations and should cooperate with local authorities if they have plans to hold religious talks, urged U Htoo Chit, who said Thai authorities say they are not prohibiting the normal religious talk in the future, just this one involving a preacher who may bring trouble.