YANGON - A court in Myanmar has issued an arrest warrant for a Buddhist monk known for incendiary comments about the country's Muslim minority and for criticism of the government of Aung San Suu Kyi, police said Wednesday.
The warrant, issued in Yangon at police request, charges Wirathu with sedition for insulting comments he made at a nationalist rally on May 5 about Suu Kyi, while comparing the military's representatives in parliament to Buddha.
Col. Myo Thu Soe, a spokesman for the police force in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, said the warrant had been forwarded to Mandalay, the location of Wirathu's monastery.
If found guilty, Wirathu could be sentenced to three years to life in prison. Under Myanmar law, he would have to be defrocked by Buddhist authorities before he could be arrested. That might be difficult, as Wirathu has a large amount of influence among his fellow monks, which might allow him to delay or defy any action against him.
Wirathu came to prominence in 2012 after deadly riots broke out between Buddhists and Muslims in the western state of Rakhine. He founded a nationalist organization, since disbanded, that was blamed for inciting violence against Muslims. Tensions in Rakhine reached a peak in 2017, when attacks by armed Rohingya militants on police posts triggered a brutal counterinsurgency campaign by the army that caused more than 700,000 Rohingya villagers to flee across the border to Bangladesh for safety.
There is widespread prejudice in Myanmar against the Rohingya, who are seen as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, even though many families have lived in Myanmar for generations. Muslims from other ethnic groups also faced disrespect and occasional violence after Wirathu and his supporters launched their nationalist campaign.
Time Magazine called Wirathu "The Face of Buddhist Terror" in a cover story in 2013.
Wirathu and his followers had success in lobbying for laws making interfaith marriages difficult, but unsuccessfully endorsed the pro-military party in the 2015 general election, which Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party won in a landslide.
Since then, Suu Kyi has been a major target of his wrath, even as he continued with sermons condemning Muslims in the name of protecting Buddhism. He said in 2017 that "it is better to marry a dog instead of marrying a Muslim man."
His virulent speech caused the National Monks Council to ban him from giving public talks for a year, but it was not tightly enforced.
In 2018, he was removed from Facebook.
His criticisms of Suu Kyi in April and May this year came ahead of a 2020 election that will again pit her against supporters of the military.
Myo Nyunt, a spokesman for Suu Kyi's party, said it did not initiate this week's legal action against Wirathu.
A May 22 letter from the National Monks Council instructed Wirathu not to be involved in activities such as his May 5 speech and instructed him to meet with them this Thursday in Yangon.
However, late Wednesday, the Ministry of Religious and Cultural Affairs announced on its Facebook page that the meeting has been postponed, without stating a reason or new date.
Wirathu could not be contacted for comment.