Controversial Monk Wirathu Surrenders to Myanmar Police

After more than a year on the run for sedition charges and just six days from the 2020 Myanmar general election, Buddhist monk, Ashin Wirathu, handed himself over to police on Monday, November 2nd. According to Tricycle, a Myanmar court issued a warrant for Wirathu’s arrest in May of last year after he gave several speeches criticizing the government and praising the country’s military as champions of Buddhism. In the 2015 general election, Wirathu endorsed the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) that lost to the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by State Counsellor, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Wirathu’s support of military rule was controversial after decades of oppressive military leadership. The Myanmar Times notes that Wirathu has been critical of the incumbent government’s efforts to amend the constitution and of appointing foreigners to government posts. It is the commentary and language Wirathu has used towards Suu Kyi that have led to the sedition charges. As part of the investigation, recordings of Wirathu allegedly attacking the leader of the NLD party are under examination. Myanmar Now states that transcripts submitted to the court are filled with demeaning, obscene, and insulting comments towards Suu Kyi. According to Reuters, the law, for which Wirathu might face arrest, prohibits bringing “hatred or contempt” towards the government and carries a prison sentence of up to three years. 

Sedition charges are not the only charges the monk faces, he also faces separate charges of defamation and causing public fear and alarm. The controversy revolving around Wirathu stems from his practice as a Buddhist monk and his role as a leader of a nationalistic movement opposing Islam’s expansion in Myanmar. Wirathu has been criticized for using inflammatory anti-Muslim rhetoric, building upon prejudice, and inciting violence against Muslims. As stated in the Los Angeles Times, though Wirathu has often particularly targeted Rohingya Muslims, Muslims from other ethnic groups and other areas have faced increased disrespect and violence after the launch of Wirathu’s nationalist campaign. 

The monk’s notoriety landed him on the cover of Time magazine in 2013, labeled “The Face of Buddhist Terror.” Hannah Beech, author of the article summarizes the controversy around Wirathu and his followers “It’s a faith famous for its pacifism and tolerance. But in several of Asia’s nations, monks are inciting bigotry and violence- mostly against Muslims.” Some of Wirathu’s actions included lobbying for laws that made intermarriage between Buddhists and Muslims difficult and asking for Buddhists to boycott Muslim owned businesses. Wirathu’s nationalistic movement and rhetoric are regarded as having incited the widespread and systematic persecution that would begin by Myanmar’s security forces in 2017. As quoted in Reuters, Andrew Gilmour, a United Nations human rights official, violence and discrimination culminated in an “ethnic cleansing” of Rohingya Muslims, which caused more than 700,000 Rohingya villagers to flee for safety to Bangladesh. 

While it is still unclear as to why Wirathu decided to turn himself in after a year in hiding, his reappearance just a week before the election gave rise to the speculation that his motives may have been political. Reuters notes that the NLD party which gained a landslide victory in 2015 is widely expected to retain power, and Wirathu’s reappearance can be speculated as an attempt to disrupt the incumbent party’s expectation of victory. Before entering the police station, Wirathu made an appeal to fellow monks and his followers, the Associated Press quoted him saying “Mainly, I would like to request my fellow monks around the country to ask their followers to vote for the parties that work to protect the country’s race and religion.” This appeal can be interpreted as his endorsement of the military-backed USDP, the main opposition party and serious contender to the NLD party.

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