MANDALAY - Shunned by Myanmar's new government and its Buddhist hierarchy, a nationalist monk blamed for whipping up at times bloody anti-Muslim fervor said he feels vindicated by U.S. voters who elected Donald Trump to be president.
Ashin Wirathu, a high-profile leader of the Myanmar Buddhist organization known as Ma Ba Tha, drew parallels between his views on Islam and those of the Republican president-elect. Trump's campaign was rife with anti-Muslim rhetoric and proposals that included banning Muslims from entering the country and heightening surveillance of mosques. The form his actual policies will take remains unclear.
“We were blamed by the world, but we are just protecting our people and country,” Wirathu said. “... The world singled us out as narrow-minded. But as people from the country that is the grandfather of democracy and human rights elected Donald Trump, who is similar to me in prioritizing nationalism, there will be less finger-pointing from the international community.”
He even floated the idea of cooperating with nationalist groups in the U.S.
“In America, there can be organizations like us who are protecting against the dangers of Islamization. Those organizations can come to organizations in Myanmar to get suggestions or discuss,” he said in an interview at his monastery in Mandalay on Nov. 12. “Myanmar doesn't really need to get suggestions from other countries. But they can get ideas from Myanmar.”
Wirathu has been accused of inciting violence with hate-filled, anti-Islamic rhetoric in this Southeast Asian, Buddhist-majority country of about 55 million. Buddhist-led riots left more than 200 people dead in 2012 and forced hundreds of thousands more to flee their homes, most of them Muslim Rohingya in Rakhine state.
Anti-Rohingya sentiment remains high in Myanmar. Members of the ethnic group are widely considered to have immigrated illegally from nearby Bangladesh, though many Rohingya families have lived in Myanmar for generations.
At the same time, Wirathu's influence has weakened in the past year. He threw his support behind the military-backed government ahead of elections in November 2015, only to see the former ruling party fall to Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy in a landslide.
In July, a senior NLD official in Yangon said that Ma Ba Tha, also known as the Committee to Protect Race and Religion, was not needed. Calls for the official to be disciplined went unanswered. In the same month, the country's official Buddhist clergy publicly distanced itself from the group.
“Ma Ba Tha fades with barely a whimper,” read a headline in the English-language Myanmar Times in August.
Wirathu said he has no plans of fading into obscurity.
“This government doesn't want our Ma Ba Tha,” he said, seated behind a desk in a saffron robe as several aides took photos and video of his pronouncements. But the NLD's attempt to thwart the group will be “hard for them,” he added, as Ma Ba Tha is not breaking any laws.
“Currently, we are waiting and looking at the situation as this government has only been here a short time and they don't know how to manage,” he said. “So we are not doing anything like campaigning or protesting to impact the government. But we will hold meetings, issue statements, help in our role.”
For example, he said, his members have been distributing food in northern Rakhine state.
Scores of Rohingya and some Myanmar troops have been killed in northern Rakhine since suspected militants attacked border posts last month, killing nine police officers. Rohingya activists say innocent villagers are being killed, but the government says it is only fighting “violent attackers.” International media and aid groups have been kept away.