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A contentious monk, known as Wirathu, who has led numerous vocal campaigns against Muslims living in Burma, was handed a “freedom of religion” award in Mandalay on Sunday night.
The award was handed over by the UK’s leading Burmese monastery, Sasana Ramsi, to “honour” the work of the outspoken monk, who was imprisoned in 2003 for his role in stirring religious clashes in Mandalay. It was originally granted in 2010, when he was still serving time in jail.
Wirathu has repeatedly courted controversy over his Islamophobic activities, including calling for the Rohingya and “kalar” – a pejorative term for Muslims or persons of South Asian descent – to be expelled from Burma.
Last week, he played an active role in stirring communal tensions in a Rangoon suburb, by spreading unfounded rumours that a local school was being developed into a mosque.
But the head of Sasana Ramsi defended their decision to honour the monk, who has also actively campaigned against the Chinese-backed copper mine in Monywa.
“Honouring a person who deserves to be honoured is a very worthwhile thing to do in our Buddhist religion,” said Uttara, a leading monk at Sansana Ramsi, at the presentation ceremony.
However, Uttara is also a patron of the controversial London-based Burma Democratic Concern (BDC), which rose to notoriety last year for leading a series of vocal attacks against the stateless Muslim Rohingya minority, who clashed with Buddhists in western Burma in June and October.
“We don’t accept they are part of Burma or Burmese citizens. We see them as illegal immigrants, Bengalis from Bangladesh,” said the group’s founder Myo Thein last year.
On their website, BDC proclaims to be an advocacy organisation committed to “democracy” and “human rights” in Burma, but it is officially listed as a jewellery company under UK law and publishes none of its financial data.
Wirathu, who spent nine years in jail under the previous military regime, has sometimes been portrayed as an activist imprisoned for participating in the 2007 Saffron Revolution – an image that he has been eager to promote.
“We live for Buddhism and back in the prison – I was treated badly by [prison officials] who would say ‘there is no monk here’,” said the monk during his acceptance speech on Sunday. “I spent over seven years in prison and the whole country assumed I was dead.”
“The award by Sayadaw [Abbot] U Uttara’s organisation at the time gave me a lot of strength. And my fans and people around the country learned that I wasn’t dead. The award gave me a lot of popularity while I was feeling low. So I very much respect and thank Sayadaw U Uttara.”
But Witharu was in fact arrested in 2003 for distributing anti-Muslim leaflets and allegedly playing a role in stirring religious clashes in Mandalay, where close to a dozen people died. In a recent interview with Al Jazeera, Wirathu described himself as “the Burmese Bin Laden” and said “his militancy is vital to counter aggressive expansion by Muslims”.
“It is very depressing to see the Sasana Ramsi Monastery go ahead with an award to Wirathu,” Mark Farmaner from Burma Campaign UK told DVB. “In the past Burma Campaign UK has worked with this monastery organising joint services with Muslims and Christians from Burma. It is a worrying sign of growing intolerance in Burmese society that they now give Wirathu an award.”