Guest Column

U Wirathu’s Million-dollar Soapbox

By Jonathan Hulland, Political Prisoners 2 July 2013

In recent weeks, U Wirathu, the now infamous Islamophobic Burmese monk, has graced the cover of Time magazine, featured in a front page New York Times article, and been interviewed on the US’s PBS News Hour. A Google News search of his name on Monday produces no less than 15,400 “results” or fifteen pages of linked news articles (up from four pages just one week ago). Already a celebrity at home in Burma, U Wirathu appears to be launching a global campaign from his monastery in dusty Mandalay, where a long line of journalists must be snaking around his temple complex, waiting patiently for their 15 minutes with the glassy-eyed monk.

U Wirathu clearly relishes the attention, eager to spread his message of Buddhist nationalist extremism to as many ears and eyes as he can reach. And the media seems just as eager to report on this headline-ready phenomenon of an ultra-nationalist Buddhist monk. As a result, U Wirathu, not Aung San Suu Kyi or Burma’s reformist President Thein Sein, is currently the face of Burma’s treacherous transition to democracy. What does that mean for Burma? And should the media be shining its spotlight so brightly on this anti-Dalai Lama?

I don’t dismiss the importance of the story behind U Wirathu and it’s about time that the international press corps changes their (mostly) happy tune about Burma’s torpid reform process, which has been in the dumps for six months. Yet, might U Wirathu simply be a convenient villain for a complicated story? After all, everyone loves a good villain, particularly foreign correspondents. U Wirathu, clad in his crimson robes, makes a nice change from Syria’s bunkered Assad or North Korea’s Kim Jong-un (who only answers journalist’s calls when a former Chicago Bulls star, Dennis Rodman, is put to him on a platter).

And reporting on one man is so much easier than reporting on the military’s continuing involvement in politics, rampant land confiscation, the ongoing very deadly fighting between Burma’s army and ethnic armed movements. Neither is it easy to cover the sad convergence of the so-called “peace processes” and the distribution of huge amounts of aid and cash by all sorts of nefarious international actors, much less trying to sleuth out the shady connection between the 969 movement and reform-phobic generals or following U Wirathu’s money trail. But the growing anti-Muslim movement in Burma is a sophisticated, well-funded, and media-savvy enterprise much bigger than U Wirathu alone. Journalists would do well to better investigate the story and political interests behind the man.

What then is the responsibility of the international media when it comes to giving an ultra-nationalist like U Wirathu a million-dollar soapbox? In the days since the Time Magazine cover was released, U Wirathu’s been milking the “controversy” to generate even more press for himself and his movement. U Wirathu feigns outrage that he’s being demonized in the Western press, but does so in an interview for the AP!

What’s more, the Burmese press has been running hard with the story. Burma’s influential Weekly Eleven just published an article entitled “Monks, Journalists decry Time Magazine’s cover portrayal of U Wirathu as Buddhist terrorist,” in which a long line of Burmese personalities supposedly denounce the Buddhist/terror association, including, sadly, democracy icon U Win Tin, who is quoted as saying that “No one can deny that Muslims are usually extremists.” Maniacal he may be, but U Wirathu’s a brilliant PR man and spin doctor, certainly much better than any of Burma’s politicians, who look amateur in comparison.

Case in point: President Thein Sein, not wanting to miss out on all the attention, opportunistically posted a statement on his official website criticizing the Time Magazine piece on June 23 with a blanket defense of Burma’s monkhood, essentially shielding U Wirathu and the 969 movement from criticism, rather than actually doing something to demonstrate that the country’s Buddhist aren’t all rabid extremists. Aung San Suu Kyi, once again, is silent on an issue that might hurt her all-important public standing.

When it comes to hate speech, the media has enormous responsibility in how it reports on extremists like U Wirathu. And it is failing to do its job by focusing on one man and his stream of vitriol. Journalists may counter this criticism by saying that they’re only helping dig U Wirathu’s grave by offering up a crazed fanatic to be judged by world opinion. But that strikes me as naïve. People like U Wirathu thrive off of controversy and being labeled a “terror,” particularly when they’ve already garnered a fervent following at home. Such portrayals only feed the Burmese Buddhist nationalist appetite. Now poor U Wirathu can claim to be both an embattled victim of both Western hypocrisy and conspiratorial Islamic extremism (the real actors behind the Time piece, according to U Wirathu).

U Wirathu and the 969 movement should, indeed must, be called out for their hateful Islamaphobia while hiding behind a false Buddhist veneer. But this must be done without playing into Machiavellian traps that only strengthen their hand. Baiting the bear will only focus its anger.

Jonathan Hulland is an independent human rights consultant.