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Burma's Menacing Monks

Burma's Buddhist monks have long stood for non violent resistance to the country's now retired military junta and were at the forefront of a number of protest movements that chipped away at the regime's legitimacy. Since the easing of stringent controls on political life, however, a darker, less tolerant side of Burma's saffron robe clad monks has emerged. This harsher Buddhist identity is personified by U Wirathu, a 45 year old monk who now heads the so-called 969 movement. Wirathu has celebrity status amongst his followers and much of his nationalist preaching relies on the vilification of Burma's minority Muslim population which is described as 'the enemy'. Wirathu's sermons and the propaganda spread by his devoted coterie of followers has been blamed for inciting Buddhist lynch mobs which have killed hundreds of Muslims and made tens of thousands homeless. The movement is now trying to squeeze the Muslim population by calling for a boycott of goods made by Muslims and campaigning for a law that would ban Muslim men from marrying Buddhist women. Despite the fact that at least 90% of Burma's population is Buddhist, nationalists complain that Muslims have a higher birth rate and will eventually outnumber them. 'If we are weak, our land will become Muslim' says Wirathu.

The nationalists' ire is directed at those Muslims who have Burmese nationality and often descend from Muslim civil servants and soldiers brought to Burma by Britain during colonial times as well as the country's one million so-called Rohingya people, a stateless minority concentrated near Burma's border with Bangladesh. After clashes between the Rohingya and Buddhist communities in 2012 that left hundreds dead, doubts have been raised as to whether the country's new, civilian government has the capacity to contain Burma's multiethnic society.

Buddhist scholars outside Burma assert that the country's isolation under decades of military rule may be contributing to the radical tendencies amongst the country's monks but Burmese nationalists have also been inspired by an equally strong stand taken by Sri Lankan Sinhalese monks toward their Tamil compatriots.

In an as yet untested post-authoritarian Burma, U Wirathu's brand of nationalist Buddhism seems to be thriving and the authorities are doing little to curtail the movement's more worrying activities. Adam Dean spent time with the monk at his monastery in Mandalay and followed on a tours around the country as he delivered sermons and rallies to his devotees.
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