March 10, 2018 / 12:47 PM / in 3 months

Myanmar monk returns to preaching after ban, denies fuelling Rakhine violence

YANGON (Reuters) - Myanmar Buddhist monk Wirathu said on Saturday his anti-Muslim rhetoric had nothing to do with violence in the western state of Rakhine, as he emerged from a one-year preaching ban.

Buddhist monk Wirathu (L), who was banned by the Myanmar government from giving sermons for one year, arrives at a monastery to give a speech after the ban expired on March 9, in Yangon, Myanmar March 10, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

Wirathu is the most prominent of Myanmar’s hard-line nationalist monks, who have emerged as a political force since the country’s transition from full military rule began in 2011.

Violence has hit Muslim communities across the Buddhist-majority country, but the nationalists’ sharpest vitriol is reserved for the Rohingya Muslim minority in Rakhine, who many see as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, or “Bengalis”.

Nearly 700,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh since insurgents attacked police and army posts on Aug. 25, sparking a furious military-led response the United Nations has said constituted ethnic cleansing and possibly genocide.

Rakhine was experiencing “terrorism of Bengalis”, Wirathu said on Saturday, dismissing claims he had “created” conflict there. He cited the relative peace of his hometown, Mandalay.

Buddhist monk Wirathu, who was banned by the Myanmar government from giving sermons for one year, arrives at a monastery to give a speech after the ban expired on March 9, in Yangon, Myanmar March 10, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

“If Wirathu creates conflict, Mandalay would become ash. The world doesn’t know this truth,” the monk said, referring to himself at a ceremony in Myanmar’s largest city, Yangon, to celebrate his return to preaching.

The central Myanmar city of Mandalay was hit by communal riots that killed two people in 2014 after news spread of what turned out to be a false claim that Muslims had raped a Buddhist woman.

Wirathu traveled at least twice in the past year to the violence-hit northern part of Rakhine, despite Myanmar’s highest religious authority imposing a one-year preaching ban in March 2017.

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The state-linked body’s move was seen as an attempt by the government of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to stifle nationalists who threaten to undermine the young administration. Another nationalist monk, Parmaukkha, was released from prison on Friday after serving three months for a 2016 protest against the U.S. government’s use of the word “Rohingya”.

Wirathu reacted to his silencing by posting online photographs of himself with his mouth taped over, and by continuing to post videos and comments online. But his Facebook account has not been accessible in recent months.

Facebook suspends and sometimes removes anyone that “consistently shares content promoting hate”, a spokesperson said in response to a question about Wirathu’s account.

“Our community standards prohibit organizations and people dedicated to promoting hatred and violence against others based on their protected characteristics,” the spokesperson said by email.

Wirathu said he would continue his “nationalist work”.

“When Facebook shuts (me) off, I rely on YouTube. YouTube is not wide-reaching enough so I will use Twitter to continue the nationalist work,” he said.

Additional reporting by Simon Lewis; Editing by Stephen Powell

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