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June 24, 2013

Burma Objects to Time Magazine Criticism

by Daniel Schearf

Burma's government is objecting to a Time Magazine article critical of an extremist monk who has been attacking Islam.  Authorities deny they are defending the monk, U Wirathu, but said they are concerned the article could create problems after recent unrest between Buddhists and Muslims. 

Burma's government says the magazine's Asia edition for July is misrepresenting Buddhism in the country. The news magazine's cover story features a photograph of extremist monk U Wi Sate Ta, better known as U Wirathu, with the words "The Face of Buddhist Terror."

The monk has become well known for giving fiery speeches branding Islam as a threat to Burma and for urging a boycott of Muslim-owned businesses.  

The Office of Burma's President issued a statement late Sunday condemning the article.

Presidential spokesman Ye Htut said they are not defending U Wirathu's views on Islam, but are objecting to the article linking Buddhism with terror.  

"Also, in some parts of the article, it creates the misunderstanding on Buddhism and also it will create unnecessary attention in our country between the two communities.  So that is what we would like to point [out]," Ye Htut stated. "And that is what we are objecting [to].  We are not defending U Wirathu or his speech."

But U Wirathu said the Time Magazine article is not against Buddhism, just against him.  In an interview with the Irrawaddy Magazine he also alleges Muslim extremists are behind the article and planning to wage jihad, or holy war, against Burma.

Since 2001, U Wirathu has warned against Muslims taking over Burma, despite the country's population being 90 percent Buddhist.

Muslims make up less than five percent of the country while Christians and Animists account for the rest.

The radical monk was jailed in 2003 for inciting deadly anti-Muslim riots, but released in 2012 as part of a general amnesty.

He quickly re-launched a campaign called "969," a number that references Buddhist beliefs to boycott Muslim businesses.  Critics say the 969 campaign is being used by Buddhist extremists as justification for violence against Muslims, a charge the monk denies.

Deadly clashes in the past year between Buddhists and Muslims have left more than 200 people dead, the vast majority Muslims.  In the most recent unrest in central Burma, 969 was found written on destroyed Muslim property, including burned mosques.

Spokesman Ye Htut said some Buddhists may be using 969 inappropriately, but authorities will not act against U Wirathu for hate speech.  He said if there are complaints about the monk then the religious association, the Sangha Maha Nayaka, should review his speech.

"But, up to now we did not receive any official complaint to the Sangha Maha Nayaka by - any individual or any organization.  Because the Sangha Maha Nayaka is the organization who review the speech or sermon made by the monks," said Ye Htut.

Burma's Buddhist leaders have been reluctant to speak out against U Wirathu or defend the country's Muslim minority.  

Even opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, a staunch defender of human rights, has taken heavy criticism for avoiding the issue.

Political analysts said they see little to gain from defending the religious minority and would risk losing support from the country's vast majority.

An online campaign launched by a Burmese citizen is trying to collect 50,000 signatures to petition Time Magazine to change the July cover.  By Monday afternoon it had reached more than 45,000.