The campaign against the Rohingya and Muslims in Myanmar is spearheaded by controversial monk Ashin Wirathu. Once referred to as the “Burmese bin Laden,” he is the leader of an ultranationalist group called 969, which opposes the growth of Islam in Myanmar. He was jailed in 2003 for inciting hatred and stirring sectarian clashes and released in 2010.
Wirathu has warned against an impending Muslim takeover of Myanmar. In 2012 the rape of a Buddhist woman in northern Rakhine led to violent attacks that left dozens of civilians dead and more than 125,000 Rohingya and other Muslims displaced. Human Rights Watch described the humanitarian crisis as “ethnic cleansing.”
In contrast with the popular image of Buddhist monks as men aloof from worldly affairs who devote themselves almost entirely to tranquil meditation in monasteries, Burma’s monks have come to play a decisive role in the country’s pro-democracy movement. But this is not a new phenomenon. Burma’s politicized, and sometimes even militant, form of Buddhism dates back to the end of the 19th century. Following the British conquest of upper Burma, and the removal of King Thibaw from his palace in Mandalay in 1885, Buddhist monks dressed in their yellow and crimson robes led bands of armed rebels against the colonial power. As Donald Eugene Smith wrote in his study Religion and Politics in Burma: “In the anti-colonial struggle, the pongyis (monks) were the first nationalists.”
Another country where fierce Buddhism has recently made headlines is Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. A Buddhist faction there, the 969 movement, is known for strident anti-Muslim campaigns that have triggered widespread violence.
Its leader, Shin Wirathu, was recently invited to Sri Lanka by the BBS. Both organisations say that even if Buddhism predominates in their own countries, overall it is under threat. "We want to protect it, therefore we signed a memorandum of understanding on forming alliances in the Asian region," says Withanage.