After shamelessly neglecting them for more than three years, the world is finally paying attention to the Rohingya people and their plight.
The Southeast Asian migrant boat crisis started making headlines earlier this month, prompting international response from nations that were previously oblivious – or at least pretended to be that way – toward the Rohingya.
While there is a lot of debate over how the problem of asylum seekers fleeing Myanmar can be solved, in order to come up with a solution – or even to strive for one – it’s very important to look into the root cause of the issue.
The Burmese government is, no doubt, to blame for not doing enough to control religious conflict within its borders. However, there is one man who is equally responsible for the persecution of the people now risking their lives on dilapidated vessels to flee Myanmar.
His name is Ashin Wirathu.
The saffron-robed 45-year-old radical Buddhist monk was imprisoned in 2003 for 25 years over charges of inciting anti-Muslim violence through his “969” campaign. He believes there is a Muslim “master plan” underway to turn Myanmar into an Islamic state.
In 2011, he was released as part of the government’s broader amnesty for political prisoners. At a time when communal tensions were already high in the country, especially in the western Rakhine state, Wirathu resumed his xenophobic movement against Islam.
Nearly 1.3 million Rohingya, a Muslim minority, who were already officially stateless in Myanmar – a Buddhist majority nation – were further subjected to persecution.
Wirathu regularly shares vitriolic rumors through media, including DVDs and the Internet, to warn against Muslims who "target innocent young Burmese girls and rape them" and "indulge in cronyism".
Also known as the “Buddhist bin Laden,” he was labeled on the July 2013 cover of Time magazine as “The Face of Buddhist Terror.” Although the controversial edition was banned in Myanmar, the rightwing leader was less than concerned with what was published about him.
“I am proud to be called a radical Buddhist,” he was quoted as saying.
The worst example of the result of his incendiary statements was the 2012 rioting in Rakhine, where clashes between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims left about 200 people dead and tens of thousands displaced.
It is believed Wirathu can carry on with his hate campaign primarily because the government supports his views – especially the ones pertaining to the Rohingya.
The Burmese government regards Rohingyas as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and denies them citizenship; on the other hand, Bangladesh has refused to grant Rohingyas refugee status since 1992. In fact, President Thein Sein doesn’t even acknowledge the term “Rohingya.”
In February, following the passage of a law that allowed temporary residents – mainly Rohingya – who hold "white papers" to vote in the upcoming elections, hundreds of Buddhist extremists under Wirathu’s orders took to the streets of Yangon. The decision was immediately revoked.
Wirathu’s malicious campaign has caused hundreds of deaths and displaced more than 140,000 Muslim Rohingyas in almost three years.
For centuries, words like meditation, awakening, truth and nirvana have been regularly attributed to Buddhism, which is widely perceived as the world's most peaceful and harmonious religion.
However, figures like Ashin Wirathu, the man responsible for the genocide of Muslims in Myanmar, are gradually corrupting the legacy of Siddharta Gautama, the enlightened one.