Ashin Wirathu has every reason to be surprised and disappointed with the November 8 election results. The radical Buddhist monk whose anti-Muslim rhetoric was blamed for a spate of violence against the Muslim minority made no secret of his support for the ruling party, which was crushed in the historic election.
“Myanmar will have stability under President Thein Sein. And only President Thein Sein can control the Muslims in Rakhine,” Wirathu told The Nation in an interview at Masoerein Monastery in Mandalay on the day millions of Myanmar voters queued up to vote. He was referring to the state in western Myanmar where scores of people were killed and thousands displaced in a series of violent clashes.
The soft-spoken monk, who presides over Myanmar’s biggest monastery in the old capital, seems to believe that he and the organisation he founded and leads Ma Ba Tha, have a mission. Ma Ba Tha, which is loosely translated as an “Association for Race and Religion”, has been leading a campaign against what it sees as an attempt by Muslims to take over the country. Wirathu’s fiery speeches were also blamed for inflaming hatred against the religious minority. The organisation is believed to have played an instrumental role in pressuring parliament to pass laws early this year to restrict the rights of Muslims, including a ban on inter-faith marriage. But Wirathu, who has been in monkhood for 28 years, insisted that as a Buddhist he has “passion” for the Muslims and harbours no ill feeling toward Islam.
“What Ma Ba Tha is doing is simply to warn people of danger lurking around them,” he said.
He claimed that Buddhism in Myanmar needs protection. “We need the army to protect the country. And we need Ma Ba Tha to protect our religion,” he said.
He compared the situation Myanmar is facing to a village being invaded by wild elephants. “With wild elephants roaming around, we tell the people to stay inside and lock their doors. We are not telling them to harm the elephants,” he explained.
But, of course, he did not hesitate to say that Muslims now pose the biggest threat to Myanmar despite the fact that they make up less than 5 per cent of the population. He cited multiple marriages by Muslim men and how Buddhist women are forced to convert to Islam after marrying them. The 48-year-old radical monk even sees attempts by Muslim Rohingyas to set up an Islamic state in Rakhine.
That’s why in his view Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy, shouldn’t come to power. “If NLD wins the election, Suu Kyi will not be able to control Rakhine. She has made promises for more rights for Muslims,” he said.
While admitting that monks still wield influence over the largely-Buddhist Myanmar population, Wirathu insisted that he and Ma Ba Tha did not take sides in the election. “We only show people the right path. We want people to do the right things,” he said.
Of course, there is no doubt that the “right path” that he was referring to was for Myanmar voters to stick to the powers-that-be. He tried to emphasise that his endorsement was specifically for Thein Sein
and not the United Solidarity
and Development Party he leads.
“There are people in Myanmar who are thirsty for change. But change at this juncture is too dangerous. It’s like walking on a tight rope. Nobody knows what will happen. We could end up like Egypt, ” he said. Though he did not mention Suu Kyi by name, it was clear that he was referring to her message of change that inspired large segments of Myanmar society that were fed up with more than half a century of military rule.
Wirathu also has a warning against any attempts to amend the constitution – something that Suu Kyi has vowed to do. He claimed that amending the constitution would create serious conflict. “We could end up with a conflict similar to the clash between the yellow shirts and red shirts in Thailand,” he said.
But it’s obvious that the Myanmar people have made their choice. Even the holy monks who would normally hold sway over how they think and behave could not stop their thirst for change.