U Wirathu, an ultranationalist Buddhist monk from Myanmar, publicly insulted a United Nations human rights envoy who was visiting the country to assess the progress of reforms initiated by the government. The video of Wirathu insulting the U.N. Special Rapporteur for Human Rights, Yanghee Lee, has gone viral in Myanmar.
Wirathu called Lee a whore for allegedly meddling in the affairs of Myanmar. “Just because you hold a position in the United Nations doesn’t make you an honorable woman,” he said.
Wirathu is the leader of the 969 Buddhist national movement that has gained popularity in recent years. It believes that the Rohingya and other Muslims are plotting to dominate Myanmar, which has a predominantly Buddhist population. The Rohingya are one of the world’s most persecuted minorities, according to the U.N. They are mostly Muslims living in Myanmar and other parts of South Asia and Southeast Asia, but the Myanmar government refuses to recognize them as citizens. Many are also denied of basic rights and access to welfare services. There are an estimated 1.3 million Rohingyas living in the country’s Rakhine State.
During her recent visit to the country, Lee said she saw no positive progress on either the conditions of the Rohingya or the tension between many radical Buddhist and Muslim groups. “The atmosphere between Buddhists and Muslims remains hostile. I saw internally displaced persons in Muslim camps living in abysmal conditions with limited access to food, health care and essential services,” she said.
She also warned against the passage of “race and religion” bills that “will legitimize discrimination, in particular against religious and ethnic minorities, and ingrain patriarchal attitudes towards women.” She was referring to bills relating to population control and healthcare, monogamy, religious conversion, and interfaith marriages involving Buddhist women and non-Buddhist men.
Lee’s objection to the proposed legislation angered Wirathu, who denounced the U.N. envoy in a mass assembly for being allegedly biased in favor of the Rohingya.
But Wirathu was quickly criticized for his “sexist” and “insulting” language against Lee. U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein called on the religious and political leaders of Myanmar to “unequivocally condemn all forms of incitement to hatred including this abhorrent public personal attack” against a U.N.-appointed envoy.
Lee herself reacted to the speech, writing in her official report that she was “personally subjected to the kind of sexist intimidation that female human rights defenders experience when advocating on controversial issues.”
Wirathu’s remarks also upset people in Myanmar. Presidential spokesperson and Minister of Information Ye Htut urged the Buddhist monk to focus on the topics of compassion, love, empathy, and good ethics. U Pandavunsa, a famous monk in the country, said that promoting hate speech is against the code of ethics of Buddhist monks. Meanwhile, U Thawbita, a monk who participated in the 2007 Saffron protest, said that Wirathu’s words “could hurt Buddhism very badly.” Khin Zaw Win, the director of the Tampadipa Institute in Yangon, expressed disappointment that “trouble is being fomented by extremists within the Buddhist clergy (but) the government is doing nothing about it.”
Wirathu, however, defended his decision to attack the U.N. envoy. “That was the harshest word (I could think of), so I used it. If I could find a harsher word, I would have used it. It is nothing compared to what she did to our country.” He added in an interview that he was simply “defending” Buddhism, and that he “should be glad that [he] succeeded in making this particular comment.”
“I am delightfully proud,” he added.
The Myanmar government announced that it will investigate the speech of Wirathu against the U.N. rapporteur. Perhaps after conducting a probe on this matter, the Ministry of Religious Affairs can also look into the past activities of nationalist monks that have inflamed communal hatred and violence in various parts of the country. Hopefully, and more importantly, this incident should embolden the country’s leaders to aggressively pursue meaningful and peaceful conversations and initiatives on religion, ethnicity, and civil rights.