Myanmar’s Ultranationalist Monk U Wirathu Turns Himself In After a Year in Hiding

By Myo Min Soe 2 November 2020

YANGON—The fugitive nationalist monk U Wirathu, who has been on the run for more than a year after the government issued a warrant for his arrest, turned himself in to police in Yangon on Monday.

Surrounded by supporters, he showed up at the city’s Western District Police Chief’s Office in Dagon Township in the afternoon.

Before turning himself in, the monk accused the government of pushing him into the life of a fugitive, and of depriving him of a clear conscience after nearly two years in hiding.

“That’s why I am here today; to follow wherever the police will lead me, after paying respects to some senior monks at Mahana [the highest Buddhist authority in Myanmar],” he told his followers.

Yangon’s Western District Court issued the sedition arrest warrant after the Yangon regional government filed a case against him under Article 124(a) of the Penal Code for allegedly attempting to his incite disaffection with the government in May last year. If he is prosecuted under the article, he faces seven to 20 years in prison, or a fine.

Immediately after the warrant was issued, U Wirathu said he would present himself to face the charges; since then, however, he has been on the run.

It’s not clear why he suddenly turned himself in on Monday— especially when Myanmar has just six days to go before holding a general election—after more than one year in hiding.

The monk, who is known for his anti-Muslim rhetoric, attracted public criticism for his fiery comments at a pro-military rally that military-appointed representatives in Parliament “should be worshipped.” At another rally in southern Myanmar, the monk ridiculed the country’s de facto leader, State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, with personal and obscene comments.

The monk also claimed that his comments about military-appointed lawmakers and the State Counselor didn’t warrant a lawsuit against him under Article 124.

“But the NLD [National League for Democracy] government has sued me—it’s an act of bullying and shaming a monk, a son of the Buddha,” he said to his supporters.

Since the NLD came to power in 2016, the monk and other nationalists have staged pro-military campaigns across the country. They oppose the major constitutional amendments proposed by the party, though the changes are supported by a majority of the country’s population, who believe the current military-drafted charter is unfit for the democratic federal Union the country is transitioning to.

At the same time, the nationalists praise the Myanmar military as the guardian of the country and of Buddhism, while condemning the West for its attempts to prosecute the military leadership on the Rohingya issue.