Anti-Muslim monk changes tack, vows to promote peace
Some say he was moved by recent riots but others remain sceptical
BANGKOK - A monk known for his outspokenness against Muslims in Myanmar, U Wirathu, has signed on to a statement by civic and religious groups that pledges to promote peace among religious communities.
A source close to the situation said his tone seemed to have changed to one of reconciliation since he visited Meikhtila on March 20, after anti-Muslim riots by right-wing Buddhists that left the town centre in ruins and more than 40 people dead.
Analysts say he was apparently affected by the scale of the violence, but given his long history of anti-Muslim activity, some remain sceptical and suggest watching his subsequent actions to see if the change is genuine.
In a radio address late yesterday, President Thein Sein said the riots had "tarnished" Myanmar's image. "Some members of the public have killed and committed arson in the spirit of anger rather than be governed by the law, and their actions have tarnished the country's image on the world stage," he said.
His warning last Thursday that the government would not hesitate to use force against those who incite riots is having some effect, the analysts say.
Meikhtila is quiet, with the army maintaining law and order. Though tensions remain, there have been only sporadic instances of violence elsewhere.
"At this point, the government is making it clear upfront: Anyone who incites violence will be jailed," said the source, who asked not to be named.
The government has set up a task force to coordinate and ensure a rapid response by security agencies to outbreaks of violence, following the unrest in Meikhtila on March 20-23, which spread to some areas near Yangon and the capital Naypyidaw.
The task force is chaired by the Home Affairs Minister, Lieutenant-General Ko Ko; U Aung Min, Minister in the President's Office, is vice-chair.
Sources said U Wirathu attended a peace dialogue in Yangon last Saturday of his own accord. Also present were members of the National Economic and Social Advisory Council, representatives of Christian, Muslim and Buddhist communities, MPs from the National League for Democracy and leaders of the 88 Generation Students Group, including social critic Zarganar.The meeting produced a joint statement declaring their commitment to spreading peaceful coexistence for multiple religions.
U Wirathu was reported as having said that he believed in peace and wanted to work for a better future for the country. Separately, the journal Irrawaddy quoted him as saying: "We've just become scapegoats because no culprits were found after the Meikhtila riots."
He denied that the 969 movement - a radical Buddhist group that he supports - was responsible for the anti-Muslim attacks.
In recent months, the group has placed 969 stickers on Buddhist homes and establishments to distinguish them from Muslim properties, and has also circulated anti-Muslim propaganda.
What happened in Meikhtila remains murky. Witnesses as well as government critics accused the police of abetting the attacks in some cases. But government insiders insist the police had orders not to open fire on the mobs.
Some say the mobs knew this, though they also conceded that the police could have been overwhelmed by the mobs.
Further, they say the chief minister of Mandalay, former general U Ye Myint, believed the situation could be controlled - by the time he realised otherwise, it was already too late.
On Saturday, the government reacted angrily to UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights for Myanmar Tomas Ojea Quintana's comments that he had "received reports of state involvement in some of the acts of violence".
"I totally reject what Quintana's saying about some sections of the state being involved in violence," Deputy Information Minister Ye Htut said on his Facebook page.
As to what caused the riots, rumours abound in the absence of hard evidence. The theory is that hardliners opposed to democratisation and marginalisation of the army want to discredit the President, derail reforms and show that the army is indispensable.
Muslims, who make up about 10 per cent of Myanmar's population of 60 million, see themselves as pawns in this game.