BANGKOK — Extremist Buddhist monks in Burma are under increasing criticism for failing to uphold their religious ideals of non-violence and spreading hatred and fear of Muslim minorities. The Burmese campaigns are drawing the attention of Buddhist leaders abroad, including the Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama.
Burma is about 90 percent Buddhist and 4 percent Muslim. Christianity makes up another 5 percent of the population.
But radical Buddhist monk U Wi Sate Ta, better known as U Wirathu, would have everyone believe that Muslims are a threat to Burma and Buddhism.
In a phone interview with VOA, he claims the Muslim community is rapidly growing through illegal immigration and forcible conversions of Buddhists.
“Muslims are never willing to work for the benefit of other ethnic people," he said. "If Muslims keep getting stronger, and one becomes president, our country's religion will be destroyed like in India. We are worried about it.”
Since 2001, U Wirathu has warned against this imaginary Muslim take-over with his "969" campaign, which references Buddhist beliefs. He was jailed in 2003 for inciting deadly anti-Muslim riots, but then released in 2012 as part of a general amnesty.
He quickly revived the 969 campaign after last year’s clashes pitting Buddhists against Muslims in western Rakhine state that killed 200 and displace 120,000.
Rights activists say monks, along with security and officials, fomented ethnic cleansing in Rakhine, a charge they deny. The unrest has since spread to central Burma where Buddhist mobs attacked Muslims, resulting in 44 deaths, including children.
Tibetan Buddhist leader the Dalai Lama Tuesday spoke out against Buddhist-led violence in Burma. He told students at the University of Maryland it was very sad and he prayed for those with negative views of Muslims to think of the Buddha.
"Respect all religions and also respect non-believers, and no preference, this religion, that religion, but rather respect all religions and also include non-believer," he said.
The Dalai Lama, while respected internationally, heads the Tibetan school of Buddhism which has no authority over Burma's separate Theravada branch of Buddhism.
U Wirathu, and other like-minded monks, have also called for a boycott of Muslim-owned businesses using 969 stickers to identify Buddhist shops. But he denies the campaign has encouraged religious tensions.
"All states that have 969 groups are peaceful," said U Wirathu. "That is why they should establish 969 groups in every state of Burma-to have peace. Whenever they campaign, there is no violence at all because they teach the Buddhist community to defend themselves, according to law, when they get bullied by other religions."
U Wirathu calls himself the "Burmese bin Laden" in reference to the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks on the U.S. that killed 3,000 people. But despite frequent hate speech included in sermons, in written materials, and posted online, authorities have been reluctant to shut down his campaign.
Burma Muslim leader Myo Win launched a campaign to counter the 969 with stickers spreading messages of tolerance. On Thursday he told the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand that Muslims in Burma are living in a state of fear.
"So…why have 969 not been identified? That's a key question," said Myo Win. "The second thing is, why have their members not been arrested? Why have they been allowed to continue with their campaign to disseminate misinformation about the Muslim and Islam among the Buddhist majority?"
Ajarn Sulak Sivaraksa is a founder of the Bangkok-based International Network of Engaged Buddhists. He says the ultimate end of Buddhism is to overcome fear, but it is fear which is driving Buddhists in Burma to commit violence.
"When you have fear you can be violent, you can be greedy, you can be deluded. Unfortunately, not only in Burma, in this country [Thailand], Sri Lanka, where Buddhism prevails, when people are afraid, they harm others, not themselves."
Burma's President Thein Sein on Monday said the country should work for peaceful coexistence between Muslims and Buddhists.
In a speech on state television he vowed to protect the rights of Muslims in Rakhine state while accommodating the needs and expectations of Rakhine Buddhists.
He blamed policies of past military governments for rights abuses and said he would implement the recommendations of his commission on the Rakhine violence.
The commission last week recommended, among other things, doubling security in Rakhine state and efforts to better assimilate the Muslim population.
Human Rights Watch says increasing security, without holding anyone accountable, would be a mistake as security forces were also involved in atrocities against Muslims.