Saffron Terror: an audience with Burma’s ‘Buddhist Bin Laden’ Ashin Wirathu
By Alex Preston 11 February 15
The UN claims that Burma’s Muslim Rohingya are among the most persecuted minorities in the world. Their most vocal enemy is Ashin Wirathu, an influential Buddhist monk who is calling for the expulsion of the “Bengali” few. GQ enters a hellish world of ethnic massacres, vicious reprisals and concentration camps.
Buddhist monk and head of the anti-Muslim 969 Movement
I’m in a tuk-tuk heading through the city centre, bouncing over potholed roads past trees in which fruit bats hang like giant seedpods. Gun-toting guards appear out of the heavy littoral haze and I shrink back into the damp canvas of the tuk-tuk’s sunshade, pulling my cap down over my eyes. I’m in Sittwe, Rakhine State, western Burma, the site of one of the most devastating humanitarian crises on the planet, called by many a genocide.
Sittwe, formerly home to 200,000 people but now decimated by ethnic violence, wears an air of terminal neglect, the once-grand colonial buildings green, mildewed and crumbling. Halfway down the high street, next to the picturesque but non-functioning clock tower, police officers swing low-slung machine guns in front of the city’s main mosque, now a blackened shell. During religious riots in the summer of 2012, the majority of Sittwe’s mosques were torched and left open to the creeping ravages of the sea air.
Around them, where once Muslims and Buddhists lived side by side, whole blocks stand empty, ghost towns, islands within the city. The security forces are everywhere, with guard huts every few hundred metres, blockades across all major roads, a dusk-to-dawn curfew for all of the city’s inhabitants.
End of the road
End of the road
A mosque and surrounding houses burn following a riot in Meiktila, Burma, March 2013
I have come to Sittwe to meet the Rohingya people, whom the UN call “one of the most persecuted minorities in the world”. The Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic group in this Buddhist-dominated country, were already a marginalised minority during Burma’s half-century-long military dictatorship. But since 2011, when the junta began its tentative steps towards democracy, the plight of these stateless people has taken a desperate dive for the worse. Subjected to punitive laws by the new “civilian” government (still, in fact, dominated by the military), which limits everything from marriage to education to the number of children they may have (a two-child policy), the Rohingya have suffered regular and bloody attacks from local Buddhists.
Often these attacks have been spearheaded by the same orange-robed monks who led a series of demonstrations against the junta in 2007, known as the “Saffron Revolution”. A warped and violent version of Buddhism has grasped hold of many monasteries in Burma, with hate-speech directed against Muslims across the country, and particularly the Rohingya. Mosques have been attacked, villages set on fire and thousands chased from their homes. Massacres have leapt from village to village in Rakhine State, with machetes the weapon of choice.
In May 2012, the rape and murder of a woman in the village of Tha Pri Chaung unleashed a wave of violence against the Rohingya. In the subsequent months more than 600 were murdered, with scores of villages looted and burned. Then in March 2013, an argument in a jeweller’s shop in the town of Meiktila sparked an orgy of violence. A Buddhist mob rampaged through the town’s Muslim quarter, killing dozens, most of them women and children. Muslim youths retaliated, pulling a monk from his bicycle, dousing him in petrol and burning him alive. Then Buddhists attacked the Islamic boarding school of Mingalar Zayone, dragging students and teachers out onto the street and hacking 32 to death as the security services looked on.
Before my visit, Matthew Smith, founder of human-rights organisation Fortify Rights, sent me a video of the Meiktila massacre. Burmese police officers stand by as, like a scene from Mad Max, an already bruised and bleeding middle-aged Muslim man is tied by his ankles behind a motorbike by Buddhist youths. There is cheering as the bike roars off down the rock-strewn road, flaying skin from the bouncing body as it goes.
Until 2012, Sittwe was home to the largest concentration of Rohingya in the country – 40 per cent of the population. Now almost a quarter of a million Rohingya have been rounded up into concentration camps along Rakhine’s low-lying coastline, with only a handful remaining in central Sittwe, trapped in a heavily guarded ghetto called Aung Mingalar.
The Rohingya camps lie to the west of town, past barbed-wire barricades, an army barracks and Sittwe university campus, which has been taken over by the security services – six Black Marias stand in the central forecourt as I pass. The camps are supposedly off limits to foreigners but, with the help of Fortify Rights, I’ve managed to find a local who will, for a price, get me inside. I keep my head down as we move through the police blockade, past another burnt-out mosque and into the camps.
The scene in Meiktila during the March 2013 riots
The scene in Meiktila during the March 2013 riots
A disagreement in a jeweller’s shop between Muslim staff and Buddhist customers is believed to have triggered the violence.
The horrors of the Rohingya camps stay with a man. International aid agencies were expelled from Rakhine State in early 2014, driven out by a mixture of localised violence and co-ordinated political pressure. I come across a makeshift clinic set up by a local volunteer and his wife in an attempt to make up for the lack of health care in the camps.
The Burmese government has shamefully neglected to fill the hole it helped to create, so the sick in the camps flock to shacks like this one, where out-of-date medicines are piled on a table in the shadowy interior and the harried health worker – he stresses that he’s not a qualified doctor – attempts to help many of those who, by now, are beyond help. I sit beside a man in his sixties with a lacerating cough that sends out a spray of fine red mist. The health worker, portly, sweating, introduces me to his wife. She’s the only midwife in this section of the camp, looking after a population of many tens of thousands. There is a difficult labour across the river, she tells me, hefting herself onto the back of a motorbike.
We continue deeper into the camps. The huts and shacks look frighteningly flimsy, all the more so when you remember that Cyclone Nargis battered Burma in 2008, killing around 138,000. I meet babies blind and bloated from hunger, HIV patients who, now the aid agencies have gone, are unable to receive antiretroviral drugs. “I can maybe get treatment outside of the camp,” one of them tells me, “but I’m scared. They will kill me quicker than the disease.” A six-year-old boy, the age of my son, stands with his mother in front of their shack. He has TB and coughs every few minutes, his eyes bulging. He spits red at my feet. Tumours cluster around the skin of his neck and under his arms. His mother strokes his hair, sobbing.
By the end of the day, I’ve spoken to dozens within the camps. I’ve seen the clinics built by the government but left locked and unstaffed, as if taunting the desperate and dying around them. I’ve seen so many lying out on their deathbeds, so many clearly suffering the effects of malnutrition, so many crushed by the poverty and drudgery and hunger.
That these camps exist anywhere in the world is a shock, worse still that they exist in a country which is currently receiving a flood of foreign investment in the wake of the military junta’s tentative steps towards democracy. That evening, the tuk-tuk rattling through the rising mist, we leave over a bridge built by the British in the Second World War. As we wait for our turn to cross, a young man leans into the tuk-tuk. “Go to see Aung Mingalar,” he says. “It is worse for them there.”
Aung Mingalar is a ghetto under siege, wrapped behind ribbons of tangled barbed wire, heavily armed guards blocking every road leading in or out. I know several journalists who’ve tried to get in and failed. Aid agencies were allowed in until the end of 2013. Since then, no one really knows how bad things are for those living in the ghetto. In my efforts to get inside, I’m introduced to a tuk-tuk driver who used to work for French NGO (non-governmental organisation) Action Contre la Faim. He tells me he knows one of the guards. We pull up to the gatepost and the driver gets out. There is a moment when I think we’ve succeeded, but the driver’s shoulders sag and comes back to me shaking his head.
I decide to try a more direct route. I get the driver to drop me a hundred yards from the western entrance to the ghetto. I can see six guards watching me approach, four on one side, two on the other. They hold their AK-47s across their chests. I can feel my pulse behind my eyes and force myself to take slow breaths. Ignoring the guards, I march forward, hurrying into something between a walk and a run when I pass the barricades. I make it 30 yards or so before the guards catch up with me. In that time I’m able to see wide, empty streets, a group of skinny youths breaking rocks by the roadside, a baby with his hands wrapped around a bulging belly.
The guards have their machine guns pointing at me, one is shouting in Burmese. I hold up my hands, smiling and allow myself to be led into the barracks beside the gatehouse. I’m forced down into a chair and offered a cigarette. I don’t smoke, but I take it anyway. The guards look at me closely and, for want of anything better to do, I hold out a photocopy of my passport. They pass it around, speaking animatedly. “Tourist,” I say, smiling dumbly. “Just a tourist.” Finally one of them gets on his motorcycle and heads off, not, as I’d thought, into Sittwe, but towards the centre of Aung Mingalar. I smoke the cigarette down as I wait. More guards arrive, a senior-looking police officer who’s been awoken from a nap and is in his vest.
“As a monk I shouldn’t say this, but there is only one way to solve the problem: we must fight back. We must fight violence with violence.”
Finally the guard comes back on his motorbike with, riding pillion, a young Rohingya man. “I speak English,” he says. “My name is Myo Win. You can’t be here.” I ask him why not and sudden, surprising tears spring to his eyes. “Because of the attacks, because of what it’s like inside. They have told me to tell you that if you leave now, you can go. Otherwise…” He looks towards the police officer in the vest and shakes his head. I take him by the hand and say goodbye, wave buffoonishly to the guards and make my way back through the barricades, to freedom.
“As a monk I shouldn’t say this, but there is only one way to solve the problem: we must fight back. We must fight violence with violence.” The chief monk of the village temple is in his early forties, a heavyset man in orange-gold robes, his bald head glistening with sweat in the fierce heat of early summer. He won’t give me his name. “Monks are still men,” he continues, “and as men, we won’t stand by and watch our villages being taken over, our women raped.”
We are sitting on a raised bamboo platform at the back of the dilapidated monastery in a village in the western outskirts of Sittwe, just outside of the Rohingya camps. Surrounded by barbed wire, the monastery is a battered brick shell, fluttering bunting strung across its prayer hall, the roof open to the elements. Towards the ocean, whose distant roar can be heard above the chirping of crickets and the crying of village children, dark-leafed mango trees droop their heavy green fruit.
It has taken a while to find the monastery. We’d stopped to ask directions at a village house. While a man made vague gestures westwards, his wife ran inside. As we walked away, my photographer, Kaung Htet, told me that he’d heard her phoning the secret services, warning them that “Americans” were poking around a place off limits to foreigners. We’d have to be quick.
The road outside the monastery bore the scars of the vicious fighting that has rolled unchecked through the region since 2012 – broken glass, blackened hedges. We were ushered inside the monastery compound and onto the platform, where the chief monk sat cross-legged and stately, a line of wicked-looking machetes laid out to one side of the bamboo lean-to. Novices in robes of deep burgundy stood watching.
The chief monk sees himself as a frontline warrior in the battle to stop his country being invaded by the people he calls “Bengalis” – the Rohingya. He is one of the Buddhist monks who, in the face of what they see as an international conspiracy funded by Muslim countries from Saudi Arabia to Malaysia, are taking up arms against Islam. He points to white-lipped scars running across his arms, dark burns on his wrists and fingers. “I got these fighting the Bengalis,” he says. “Danger is always here for us. There are Bengali houses just there.” He gestures to a group of makeshift huts on the horizon, part of the Rohingya camps which stretch for mile after mile down the coast. “During the violence, hundreds of Bengalis attacked us and tried to set the village houses on fire. We caught a group of them with bottles of gasoline and lighters. They told us their imam had ordered them to set the village on fire.” In June 2012, he tells me, more than a thousand Rohingya launched an assault on the village. “At first we thought it was a Muslim funeral, there were so many of them. Then we realised it was an attack. We had to fight for our lives.” Witness reports paint a much murkier picture, suggesting that the Rohingya were merely fighting off Buddhist attackers.
I ask the chief monk about Ashin Wirathu, the monk who dubs himself the “Burmese bin Laden” and leads the viciously anti-Muslim 969 Movement. Wirathu had recently visited Rakhine State, giving hate-filled speeches to crowds of thousands about the wickedness of the “kalars” (a highly offensive term for Muslims) and the need for Rakhine Buddhists to defend themselves at all costs. “Wirathu is a good man,” the chief monk says. “He’s just trying to prevent bad things happening, to protect the integrity of Buddhism.
“The media are all owned by Muslims, and they paint only negative pictures of him.” At the mention of Wirathu, the chief monk’s temper seems to snap. His voice rises, his words coming out fast and jumbled. One of the novice monks begins to smack a hammer into his hand just behind me. “The media accuse us of having put the Bengalis in concentration camps. But there are no gas chambers here. The NGOs like Médecins Sans Frontières and Malteser International were all helping the Bengalis. They were training the Bengalis to attack our country. We found explosives and ammunition in the NGOs’ warehouses.”
His voice has pitched to a shriek. All of a sudden, he stands, lifting his heavy body remarkably quickly, and orders us from the monastery. When Kaung Htet tries to take his picture, he holds up a hand and gestures again for us to leave, marching us out of the gates and back into the village. He is there, watching, arms crossed, as we walk back along the dusty road towards town.
Four days later, I’m at Mandalay airport to meet Ashin Wirathu. Wirathu’s 969 Movement has been the vanguard of Burma’s anti-Muslim feeling, with the monk leading rallies in which he calls for Muslims to be expelled from the country, for a crackdown on the Muslim men he accuses of forcing Buddhist females into polygamy and apostasy.
Wirathu has been an extraordinary beneficiary of the country’s recent reforms. Arrested with four of his followers in 2003 for inciting anti-Muslim violence, he was originally sentenced to 25 years in jail. He was released in 2011 as the government liberated the vast majority of political prisoners. Since then, Wirathu has seized upon the huge growth of social media in a country where Facebook was banned until three years ago. Every day, Wirathu’s Facebook page is updated with the details of alleged new Muslim atrocities – murders, bomb attacks and, above all, rape, which he claims is used by Muslims not only as an instrument of terror, but as a way of carrying out a sub rosa colonisation of the country. He tours Burma constantly, his vituperative speeches swiftly disseminated on YouTube.
GQ has been granted a rare audience with Wirathu; better still, he’s invited me to come and spend two days in the compound from which he runs the 969 Movement. It’s an unprecedented glimpse into the activities of this charismatic monk, one of the key players in the rapidly evolving Burmese political scene.
The next day, having caught only a brief glimpse of the monk as he was shuttled from the airport to a late-night 969 rally, I set off for our meeting. We drive through Mandalay’s sprawling grid of streets, past the vast, walled palace, once the home of the royal family, now headquarters of the Tatmadaw, Burma’s mighty military. Still, signs adorn the walls cheerily proclaiming that “Tatmadaw [will] crush all those harming the union.”
Wirathu’s compound sits within the New Masoeyein Monastery, over the brackish waters of the Irrawaddy River from the town’s huge jade market. In the stillness of the morning, as we step from the car, the cries of market traders can be heard across the river.
A novice sweeps the ground in front of the building in which Wirathu lives and works, a three-storey wooden block. Clouds of dust whip up around the huge billboard pinned to the side of the building. It is a grisly collage of alleged Muslim atrocities: a beheaded baby, blue and green gore spewing from the dark hole of his neck; murdered monks lying in a road; machete-hacked women; a group of men in Muslim garb burning bodies outside a pagoda.
Wirathu arrives in his SUV and we stand talking for a moment in the cool morning air. I notice that a hair protrudes from a follicle in his neck. It is thick and dark and at least eight inches long. We make our way into the building, where a group of 969 members stand around. Others sit eating breakfast in the refectory that seems to double as a dormitory. Wirathu eases himself into a wicker chair and gestures for me to sit at his feet. I do so, reaching to stroke the dog that patters in and out of the building, searching for titbits.
Noises echo around us as we talk: the shriek of brainfever birds outside, a monk hawking and spitting in an upper room, the clatter of plates. Behind Wirathu stands a monk who introduces himself as 969’s press officer. He records our discussion and, every time Wirathu uses the word “kalar” (as loaded and abhorrent as “nigger”), he leans respectfully forwards and intones, “Muslim.” Wirathu ignores the correction.
I ask Wirathu about the situation in Rakhine. There is a serious threat from terrorists, he tells me, with Muslims looking to carry out attacks across the state. The blame lies firmly with the international community. “You should go there and see the terrible things the NGOs have done,” he tells me. “Most of the money from the Muslim world that is supporting the Bengalis [the Rohingya] is being channelled through the NGOs. Saudi Arabia is funnelling money through the NGOs. The NGOs are all working for the Rohingya; they are discriminating against the native Rakhine.”
He tells me how Muslims have taken over the country, flooding across the border from Bangladesh, snapping up jobs, seizing control of key industries. “In Yangon,” he says, “most of the construction companies are owned by Muslims. You can rarely find Buddhists there. They have contacts within government that allow them to do business more easily in Burma than Buddhists.”
We move on to speak about Wirathu’s Facebook campaign to spread news of alleged Muslim crimes in the country. I question whether the small number of Muslims in the country – at last count less than five per cent of the population – could really carry out attacks on the scale that Wirathu claims.
“Rape by Muslims of Buddhist girls is a very frequent event in Burma,” he tells me. “An everyday occurrence. I post as many of them as I can on my Facebook page, just to let people know how common it is. Today I’ll post a case on my site that happened last month and the man has just been sentenced.”
He goes on to say that one of 969’s key roles is supporting the families of those attacked by Muslims. “There was a case in Mandalay,” he says. “A six-year-old Burmese girl was raped by a 55-year-old ‘kalar’ landlord. I supported the family of the girl. I found them another place to stay during the trial. There was another rape case in Yangon, a similar situation, where I supported the family with money from my own pocket.”
It feels strange to come this far in an article about Burma without mention of the country’s great human-rights heroine, Aung San Suu Kyi, but this is symptomatic of her stance on anti-Muslim violence in general and the plight of the Rohingya in particular. She has been silent in the face of the bloodshed, trying to explain it away as the natural result of the country’s move towards democracy. More charitable commentators suggest that Daw Suu, as she’s known, is playing a political game.
Others, such as Mark Farmaner of Burma Campaign UK, are more critical. “I think she has seriously miscalculated her response to anti-Muslim violence in Burma,” he tells me. “She has ended up with the worst of both worlds. On the one hand, she hasn’t spoken up for an oppressed and endangered minority, on the other hand, she’s still being attacked by the 969 Movement and losing support because there remains a perception that she’s friendly to Muslims. Because she didn’t take a firm moral stance against anti-Muslim feeling from the start, using her moral authority, she has opened the way for people like Wirathu to act with absolute impunity.”
I notice that Wirathu wears a deep-blue tattoo of a peacock on his inner arm – symbol of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League For Democracy party. He gives a little chuckle and makes as if to scrub it away. “As a political leader, I used to really admire her, but from a nationalist point of view, I don’t think she should be president. There’s no way she should run the country. She is inefficient in terms of national security, but more than this, she has opposed the 969 Movement, publicly criticised us. For example, she said that the two-child policy and interfaith marriage law were against human rights. This means she is against us.”
I finally touch on Wirathu’s closeness to the very same military that imprisoned him. From external commentators to the people I meet on the streets of Mandalay to members of Wirathu’s own inner circle, I hear repeated claims of government support of 969 and, particularly, of Wirathu’s relationship with a member of Burma’s lower house by the name of Aung Thaung. The monk bristles visibly when I say the name, his voice dropping into a deep growl, his eyes fixing themselves upon me. “I’ve only met Aung Thaung once in my life, after my release from prison after the amnesty in 2012. The minister came here and sat exactly where you are now and I offered him some robes. That’s the extent of our relationship. I’ve had no contact with him by phone, or email or letter. Nothing. Not with him, nor with his followers.”
Wirathu stands up. It is clear that the interview is over.
Barack Obama has held up Burma as an avatar of global democratic meliorism. He speaks of offering the “hand of friendship” to President Thein Sein and was swift to remove most of the US sanctions against the regime in the wake of 2011’s reforms.
The Western world want to put their faith in a narrative that sees Burma as a rehabilitated pupil
Obama and the majority of the Western world want to put their faith in a narrative that sees Burma – previously lumped with North Korea and Iran as an “outpost of tyranny” – as a rehabilitated pupil, won over to the benefits of political and economic liberalism. The truth, alas, is far murkier and much more sinister.
Certainly the government has released the vast majority of its political prisoners, although many still remain in jail, including a number of Rohingya arrested only for voicing their anger at the treatment of their friends and family. The press has theoretical freedom of speech, although, again, to speak of the Rohingya is a risky business, with several journalists locked up for reporting on life in the camps.
With elections in 2015, it is too soon to know whether the military will truly let the opposition contest freely. Aung San Suu Kyi is still banned from taking office due to a line in the constitution that forbids those married to foreigners becoming president (her late husband was the Oxford academic Michael Aris).
Burma is of enormous importance for both China and India as the great eastern economic migration continues. As Thant Myint-U, one of Burma’s leading intellectuals, has said, “What China is lacking is its California, another coast that would provide its remote interior provinces with an outlet to the sea.” Burma, Thant Myint-U says, is seen by China “as the bridge to the Bay of Bengal and the waters beyond”. And yet, colouring everything, is the stain of the “slow-burning genocide” taking place in Rakhine State, the violence against Muslims across the rest of the country. Some try to paint this as a sad but understandable corollary of the coming of democracy, others claim that the Rohingya are recent arrivals from Bangladesh and ought to be sent back.
The clamour for action grows louder. Many now argue that the government of Burma should be held responsible for the horrors being perpetrated. As Tomás Ojea Quintana, the UN’s special rapporteur on Burma, put it to me when I spoke to him on my return from Sittwe, “There has been a history of systematic discrimination against Rohingyas in Rakhine State. This has been aggravated by the government, with the conditions in IDP [internally displaced people] camps becoming dire and the police being accomplices in some of the massacres carried out against the Rohingya.”
Another staunch defender of the Rohingya, former US senator Tom Andrews, now head of human-rights organisation United To End Genocide, sees in Burma the victory of “the politics of hate, the politics of fear [led by] a few bitter, radical monks”. He views the plight of the Rohingya as a crucial test, not only of Burma’s emerging democracy, but of the West’s willingness to intervene in humanitarian crises. “There’s no one domestically to stand up and speak out for the Rohingya. This makes it all the more important for the international community to exert power and make it count.”