Myanmar moves to halt Wirathu’s divisive diatribes, but there are many more like him
Freedom of expression is not a licence to spread hate speech, and anyone who advocates free speech must always keep in mind the associated need for accountability and responsibility.
Myanmar’s Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee, a government-appointed body of senior Buddhist monks, made the right decision last week in banning the extremist preacher U Wirathu from making hurtful remarks about other religions.
On Facebook on February 26 Wirathu had expressed “relief” at the murder a month earlier of Ko Ni, a Muslim legal adviser to the National League for Democracy (NLD). The monk thanked Kyi Lin, Aung Win Zaw and Zeya Phyo, who are accused of involvement in the assassination, and expressed sympathy for their families as the trio faces justice.
The monk also issued a warning to champions of democracy who complain about the military retaining a sizeable bloc of seats in parliament. They and anyone who seeks to amend the military-drafted constitution of 2008 should “be careful”, he wrote. Ko Ni had brought his legal expertise to bear in efforts to amend the charter and curtail the generals’ influence.
If anything, last week’s attempt to silence this bigot in monk’s robes was far overdue. He’s been railing against Islam for years – not about Muslim extremism but about the faith itself. Wirathu and his organisation Ma Ba Tha played a key role in stirring up anti-Muslim sentiment soon after Myanmar began opening up to the world, and in 2012 organised public rallies and demanded that then-president Thein Sein deport the Muslim Rohingya long settled in the country’s west. As it turned out, deportation might have been a preferable fate to the wholesale slaughter that ensued.
Perhaps the killing of Ko Ni was the straw that broke the camel’s back in terms of NLD tolerance for Wirathu and his ilk. Now the ruling party, the NLD is under immense international pressure to stop the repression of the Rohingya. The country’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has been roundly criticised for remaining aloof on this matter, though she has acknowledged that the government needed to resolve the situation.
Wirathu in effect widened the target on his back by endorsing the military’s continued role in politics. “Don’t blame Ma Ba Tha if many killers like Kyi Lin appear,” he posted on Facebook, ascribing guilt to that suspect. “Our country still needs the military representatives [in parliament] even if other countries don’t.” Wirathu was on warm terms with the previous government of ex-general Thein Sein, who not only granted him amnesty following his arrest for militant activities in 2003 but also allowed him the freedom to spread Islamophobia.
Wirathu continues to be popular among Buddhist nationalists and within the conservative leadership of the military. This leaves Suu Kyi and the NLD in a dilemma as it seeks to maintain support among the public, a majority of which shares the monk’s prejudice against Muslims. While Ko Ni was a Muslim, the party fielded no Muslim candidates in the 2014 election. Nevertheless, the overriding goal of fostering full democracy allows the government no leeway in dealing with troublemakers like Wirathu.
Freedom of expression is a fundamental building block of democracy, but the government is forced in this case to make it clear to Wirathu and his followers that such freedom demands responsibility as well. And, while the government needs the support of the Buddhist-majority populace, it cannot ignore the plight of the Muslim or any other minority. As difficult as it might be to persuade the majority that democracy requires that all people be treated equally, it must meet the challenge for the sake of Myanmar’s future.