A pair of Myanmar's ultra-nationalist monks has reappeared in public over the past two days, one emerging from a one-year preaching ban, the other from prison.
Wirathu, a monk once dubbed the "Buddhist Bin Laden," was barred from giving public sermons last year by a council of senior monks who said he had "repeatedly delivered hate speech against religions to cause communal strife."
On Saturday, Wirathu denied that his anti-Muslim statements had anything to do with the deadly violence that erupted in Rakhine state last year.
He blamed the conflict there on "terrorism of Bengalis." He pointed to the relative calm in Mandalay, his hometown, to bolster his claim.
"If Wirathu creates conflict, Mandalay would become ash. The world doesn't know this truth," he said, referring to himself at a ceremony in Yangon, to celebrate his return to preaching.
Mandalay, in central Myanmar, was hit by deadly riots in 2014 over what turned out to be false reports that Muslims had raped a Buddhist woman.
Wirathu is the most prominent of Myanmar's hard-line nationalist monks that have coalesced into a potent political force since the country began to transition from military rule in 2011.
Charges of ethnic cleansing
Violence has hit Muslim communities across the predominantly Buddhist country, but the nationalists' sharpest attacks have been reserved for the Rohingya Muslim minority in Rakhine. Many Buddhists see them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and refer to them as "Bengalis."
Insurgent attacks on police and army posts in late August sparked a vicious military response, forcing nearly 700,000 Rohingya people to flee to neighboring Bangladesh. The UN said the government attacks constituted ethnic cleansing, and perhaps genocide.
During the past year, Wirathu traveled at least twice to the violence-torn part of northern Rakhine.
The effort to block Wirathu from public preaching was seen as an attempt by the government of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to quell nationalist voices who threaten to undermine the fledgling administration.
On Friday another nationalist monk, Parmaukkha, was released from prison after serving three months for leading a 2016 protest against the US government's use of the word "Rohingya." He was formally charged with inciting unrest.
Parmaukkha declared himself unrepentant upon his release from jail.
"There is no Rohingya ethnic group among the 135 ethnic groups in Myanmar," he told reporters on Friday.
"The person who made the mistake was the ambassador of the United States [to Myanmar]," he said, referring to the embassy's use of the word Rohingya, which prompted him and hundreds of others to protest.
Read more: Violence in the name of Buddhism
bik/sms (Reuters, AFP)