RANGOON – Leader of the Ma Ba Tha ultranationalist group U Wirathu and 10 other Buddhist monks were welcomed by ethnic Arakanese villagers in conflict-torn Maungdaw Township, northern Arakan State, on Friday.
A major from the border police told The Irrawaddy that U Wirathu visited Aung Mingalar, Aung Tharyar and Aung Zeya villages, situated near the border police headquarters at Kyi Kan Pyin, which was ambushed by militants in October of last year, killing nine policemen.
“Everything is fine here. But if something breaks out, we will fight against the attackers,” the policeman said, on the condition of anonymity.
The other villages that the monks’ delegation visited included Long Don and Kyein Chaung, which are situated far from the border police headquarters and surrounded by Muslim villages.
The police official said that U Wirathu donated bags of rice, dried fish and gave sweets to children. The monk also held an informal discussion with Brig-Gen Thura San Lwin at Kyi Kan Pyin. But the police officer claimed that talks between the two men focused solely on religious matters, and rejected statements that it was a “closed-door meeting.”
Several vehicles belonging to the border police provided an escort for U Wirathu as he traveled to five Arakanese villages in southern Maungdaw on Friday.
The divisive monk was banned by authorities from delivering sermons for a year beginning in March, handed down for engaging in anti-Muslim hate speech in Irrawaddy Division. But it is unclear whether the prohibition includes restrictions on public speaking in general.
“This trip is not a political campaign. He suggested [that the villagers] protect the Buddhist religion and he advised them to meditate,” the police officer said. He also stated that he did not know when U Wirathu would return to his monastery in Mandalay.
The Irrawaddy phoned Ma Ba Tha followers who are accompanying U Wirathu on his Arakan State trip, but was not able to obtain a comment from them.
Local Buddhist Arakanese U Tun Kyaw of Alay Than Kyaw village in southern Maungdaw, told The Irrawaddy he was “really glad” to see U Wirathu, and that he believed the monk had learned more about the challenges of local Arakanese, referring to problems he perceived as population shrinkage.
Some Arakanese in Rangoon and abroad have said that they worry that U Wirathu is exploiting the fears of rural Arakanese for political purposes.
Yet Kyaw Myo Paing, 22, a Buddhist Arakanese man from Mawrawaddy village, disagreed with this perspective.
“I respect and like U Wirathu because he always voices out about being anti-Muslim,” he said, saying that people who lived away from the area did not understand the situation.
He said that since riots broke out in 2012, Buddhists and Muslims no longer trust one another.
The Irrawaddy contacted local Muslim religious leaders in the area for comment, but were unable to reach them at the time of publication.