Yangon, Myanmar – A court in Myanmar has issued an arrest warrant against Wirathu, a notorious Buddhist monk whose hate-preaching sermons against the Rohingya and other minority Muslims have stoked religious tensions.
The monk, who once reportedly dubbed himself the “Burmese bin Laden”, faces up to life imprisonment under the country’s sedition law, which prohibits stirring up “hatred”, “contempt” or “disaffection” towards the government.
Police have so far declined to say why Wirathu has been charged, but the monk recently drew anger from senior officials for a series of speeches in which he attacked Myanmar’s de facto civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Wirathu has not yet been arrested and his exact whereabouts are unknown. A police spokesperson did not answer calls from Al Jazeera seeking comment.
He is usually based at his monastery in the city of Mandalay, but a judge has told police to bring him before a court in the country’s main city of Yangon before June 4, the Myanmar Now news agency reported.
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Contacted by phone, a man who described himself as a student of Wirathu told Al Jazeera the monk had left Mandalay for Yangon, where he has been summoned to appear before a panel of senior monks on Thursday.
The panel is expected to reprimand him for his involvement in “mundane affairs” after a recent speech he gave defending Myanmar’s military-drafted constitution and railing against Aung San Suu Kyi’s efforts to amend it.
During the speech he said military members of parliament, who are guaranteed unelected seats by the constitution, should be worshipped like the Buddha.
His nationalist followers have vowed to show their support for him with a protest on Thursday near Yangon’s Shwedagon pagoda, the country’s holiest Buddhist site.
Wirathu has described Muslims as “mad dogs” and threatened to use violence to oppose international efforts to bring Myanmar’s generals to justice for the slaughter of thousands of Rohingya in 2017, which United Nations investigators have said may amount to genocide.
In 2003, he was jailed for almost 10 years for inciting deadly riots against Muslims. Last year, Facebook barred him from the platform in response to his incendiary posts about the minority.
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Myanmar’s first civilian government in decades, led by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party, has long regarded Wirathu as a nuisance.
In 2017, a government-appointed committee of top monks barred Wirathu from preaching for a year, stating that he had “repeatedly delivered hate speech against religions to cause communal strife.” In the same year, the committee disbanded Ma Ba Tha, a Buddhist nationalist group in which he was a key figure.
But Aung San Suu Kyi has been unable to shake criticism that she is bowing to pressure from Buddhist hardliners.
David Mathieson, a Myanmar-based analyst, said the sedition charges against Wirathu follow a shift in public opinion towards the monk.
“Wirathu has been widely dismissed inside Myanmar as a buffoonish ultranationalist for a long time now,” he told Al Jazeera. “The authorities may have calculated what remained of his support base would be unlikely to create serious trouble if he was arrested.”
With an election coming up next year, “the NLD may well have calculated moving against Wirathu would generate more popular support, not less,” he added.
Rights groups are uneasy about the decision to target the monk with a sedition law.
“The government’s use of sedition charges raises concerns about the focus of the investigation, which should be squarely on Wirathu’s incitement of violence and hostility,” said Matthew Bugher, head of Asia for Article 19, an advocacy group focussed on freedom of expression.
“Wirathu’s speech is vile and repugnant,” he added. “International investigators have already reported on the apparent links between his words and the violence and discrimination directed at Muslim populations. A criminal investigation into his speech and actions is clearly warranted.”
Additional reporting by Cape Diamond