RANGOON — U Wirathu, an ultranationalist monk notorious for his inflammatory anti-Muslim rhetoric, is visiting Maungdaw Township in Arakan State, where mostly stateless Muslims that identify as Rohingya have been the targets of deadly riots and an army crackdown.
Border police are providing security for the monk, a high-profile member of Buddhist nationalist group Ma Ba Tha, who was banned from delivering sermons for a year starting in March because of his religious hate speech.
U Wirathu will stay at Alodaw Pyei monastery in downtown Maungdaw, which is constantly under police watch, according to a local resident. He has asked authorities for permission to visit northern Arakanese villages.
Most Arakanese Buddhists strongly deny the claim of the region’s Rohingya—roughly 1 million—to belong in Arakan and, like the government, refer to the minority as “Bengalis,” a term suggesting they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
The Burma Army began a “clearance operation” in Arakan State after militants attacked border police outposts there on Oct. 9; a Rohingya group calling itself Harakah al-Yaqin claimed responsibility for the attacks. During the operations by security forces that followed, hundreds of Rohingya were reportedly killed and about 75,000 fled to Bangladesh, according to the United Nations.
A Maungdaw police officer said that U Wirathu had brought rice to donate to the Arakanese community. Local media reported the amount of rice as 3,000 bags.
Ma Ba Tha follower Ko Phoe Thar, who is travelling with U Wirathu’s entourage, told The Irrawaddy on Thursday that the group was waiting for permission from the state government to visit Arakanese villages in the area. Without naming the locations, he added that authorities had designated some areas off-limits because of safety concerns.
“We have been facing some inconveniences here. We suggested somewhere to visit and the authorities responded by giving us permission to visit another place instead,” he said.
He declined to provide details about the length of the trip and about whether the monk had plans to speak out in the area. Local media reported that the trip would last for six days.
“The intention of this trip is to make donations to Arakanese villages. I cannot provide further information right now. Sayadaw [U Wirathu] might hold a press conference in Maungdaw this afternoon,” he said early in the day.
Separately, Ahnu Lamar, the 60-year-old owner of one of two houses that were destroyed in a fire in Sittwe’s Muslim quarter on Wednesday night, has been detained for questioning.
Deputy police Maj Cho Lwin said Ahnu Lamar was visiting his daughter when the fire broke out in Aung Mingalar quarter—known locally as Ambala. He said that it might have been caused by a faulty solar panel.
Hundreds of residents came out to see the fire and one was hit and wounded by a small stone, said Major Cho Lwin, adding that Border Affairs Minister Col. Htein Lin deployed 50 officers to break up the crowd.
Local Rohingya resident U Kyaw Hla Aung told The Irrawaddy over the phone on Wednesday that some Arakanese people threw stones at the burning homes as Muslims tackled the blaze.
He is concerned that U Wirathu’s visit will embolden nationalist groups in Maungdaw, adding that many Arakanese reportedly support the monk because he said the Rohingya should be deported to Bangladesh.
“The government is responsible if something bad happens during Wirathu’s visit,” said U Kyaw Hla Aung.
On April 28, four Ma Ba Tha followers were trialed under Article 505(b) of Burma’s Penal Code in Rangoon’s Kamayut Township courthouse for “intent to cause fear or alarm to the public” whereby someone “may be induced to commit an offense against the State.”
They are being charged for protesting outside the US Embassy in Rangoon last April against the American mission’s use of the word “Rohingya.”
U Wirathu arrived at the court hearing wearing a surgical mask, which he later removed to reveal tape covering his mouth to protest the gag order on his sermons put forward by the State Sangha Nayaka Committee (Ma Ha Na).
The same day, authorities sealed off two madrasas in Thaketa Township near downtown Rangoon as an alleged Buddhist nationalist group marched on the area, claiming the Islamic schools were operating as mosques, without official permission.
Two days later, U Wirathu and about 10 other Ma Ba Tha monks, along with their followers, boarded a flight from Rangoon to Thandwe Township in Arakan State, then traveled to the state capital Sittwe before taking a boat to Buthidaung Township and driving to Maungdaw on Wednesday.
U Wirathu visited Maungdaw several times following rioting in 2012 between the Buddhist and Muslim communities in Arakan State. During the visits, he blamed the clashes on Muslims, demanded their deportation, and stirred up ultra-nationalist sentiment.