Skip to main content

An Audience with Wirathu

A #VQRTrueStory Essay


[clock] 10-MINUTE READ PUBLISHED: August 10, 2016


1.

Photograph by Sarah Khatry

“Don’t publish the article with any adjective I did not use. If you want to use an adjective, use ‘Myanmar nationalist.’”

“That’s how you want to be described?”

“Yes.” He chuckles. “Don’t use ‘radical’ or ‘brutal.’ ‘Burmese bin Laden.’”

Wirathu, the Myanmar nationalist, sits across from me in a chamber of his monastery in Mandalay, his chosen translator at the end of the desk between us. His glasses are off. A monk fills his teacup. Another is stationed to his left with a large camera on a tripod, the lens aimed at me. It flashes.

I’m in over my head. I didn’t expect to get to speak him. With a taxi driver as my Burmese negotiator, I awaited him earlier today in this chamber. As he entered, the other monks present instructed me to kneel, and from my knees I made my request. He refused me, explaining his distrust—no, his fear—of American media. TIME Magazine did name him “The Face of Buddhist Terror” in 2013. I pressed on but promised only what I could: I would hear him out. That is why I came. To listen to the monk who could incite genocide and hear hypocrisy or worse, sincerity.

Something worked. My youth, my South Asian face. Maybe his own vanity.

A few hours later, I’m starting easy on him and myself, passing my first question on to the translator. Why do you love Trump? At the sound of that name, Wirathu gives an impulsive thumbs up. “He is a nationalist,” he says. “He is not like other people. He can behave toward the Muslims—but he will also protect his country. Most people will not speak the truth about them because the Muslim community is big and powerful. Trump dares to speak the truth.”

“In the past, the United States has been governed alternatively by Republicans and Democrats,” the translator continues. Wirathu folds the four fingers of his right hand down, counting Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama.

“Now begins the Donald Trump age.”

Nuance has been lost in translation, of course, but this tale of Trump the truth-teller against the Muslim media is only the first of many he shares that night.

In response to my questions, he offers stories. Simplistic. Slippery. He elides “facts” but dares to speak for one truth: that of plain hate in his country toward Islam. His stories may have no need to cohere with reality, but he still gets to shape it. 

 

2.

Photograph by Sarah KhatryThe transition of Myanmar’s government from a military junta to a democracy culminated when the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, took office on April 1, 2016. Three weeks later, sitting across from Wirathu, I ask about the country’s future. He’s been outright hostile to the NLD in the past, accusing them of being Muslim sympathizers.

He takes his time answering, his hands gesturing as if to deal the words like cards, until finally he flings both, straightens in his seat, and breaks into laughter.

The translator begins: “It’s kind of like…a person who won the lottery but lost the ticket, so can’t get the prize.” Clarifies: “The NLD has no experience to govern and doesn’t have enough power with the people. That’s why the people of Burma have won the lottery but cannot get the prize—from anyone.”

Wirathu intercedes. “The NLD won the landslide election. That’s the lottery ticket—given to them from the people. The NLD government has taken their prize. But they don’t know what do with it. So they’re just sitting down on the pile of the money!”

I’ve finally gotten the joke, but it is no joke. A quarter of the seats in parliament remain under the control of the military.

“If the NLD is not clever enough in handling parliament, tensions will grow between them and the military. And if the military MPs distrust parliament, they can destroy it. I don’t think Suu Kyi can handle the country very well. Just wait and see for when the military will take power back. They can do it.”

All of Myanmar I’ve seen until now has been celebrating this democratic experiment and their faith in Suu Kyi.

On Suu Kyi, he says: “If you love your monkey, you put a bell on her collar to make a sound. Democracy is just the bell.”

He dismisses Aung San Suu Kyi as the pet of “the people who love democracy.” He means our pet: the pet of Western ideals and adoration, our Nobel Peace Prize, with democracy gifted to her by the force of our will, and by permission of what he considers a progressive Burmese military.

His punch line: “So it’s noisy! The monkey is always going around with that bell on its neck.” 

 

3.

Wirathu has an official Facebook page, “Wira Thu,” with more than 199,000 followers. It’s a machine of self-publicity, with photo albums for his daily activities and essays reflecting on his every encounter with the media. One condition of our interview is that he post about it, including photographs of the two of us.

Wirathu has an official Facebook page, “Wira Thu,” with more than 199,000 followers. It’s a machine of self-publicity, with photo albums for his daily activities and essays reflecting on his every encounter with the media. One condition of our interview is that he post about it, including photographs of the two of us.

All of this is for the cause. “I use Facebook to show what kind of people they are. Most of the issues are rape cases. Also, underage marriage. After marriage, they force the girl to convert to Islam, or they torture her.”

He decides to show me. “April 21, that Muslim guy pretended to be a Buddhist and proposed marriage to this Buddhist girl. She denied him, then he beat her.”

He scrolls on, “On April 14, a Muslim man destroyed a Buddhist house. This was a compound where a Muslim and a Buddhist family shared the same property. When the Muslims prayed, they said the Buddhists were very noisy.” Dark interior shots of a house with the camera’s flash catching disarray on the floor.

Now, a photograph of a family circled about a girl who lies curled with her toes arched up. A red oval is imposed around her. “That Hindu girl is only seven years old. He is thirty-two years old.” A headshot of a man with his eyes rolled up and mouth open. He specifies, “Not to the vagina, to the anus.” He finally pauses, maybe expecting this one will shock me.

But what’s he shown me? Bad photos juxtaposed with graphic, sensational stories. Handpicked and arranged. True? Doesn’t matter.

He goes on, “Christians are not dangerous for the country. They have good social welfare, living standards, and education. They can differentiate between dos and don’ts. Muslims are the inverse.” Adds, “And they are also rude.” His tone drops, as if this rudeness, of everything, is what he can’t stomach.

He tells me that his posts alert the military to these crimes, but then, later, says that he never posts until after the perpetrator has been arrested, to avoid causing a lynch mob. Such mobs, provoked by rumors he’s peddled through posts and speeches, have made him infamous. 

 

4.

Photograph by Sarah KhatryThe fan hums; underneath its sound I can hear chanting elsewhere in the monastery, whose compound surrounds us. Wirathu is relaxed. I’ve listened to his stories: about Donald Trump, Aung San Suu Kyi and the fate of Myanmar’s new democracy, and his favorite subject—everything wrong with Muslims. At times, I’ve even laughed with him. Now this feels like the end of the interview. I want out of this room, where I’ve stifled myself to make him trust me.

I offer that if he has any questions for me, he should fire away. He laughs.

“It’s fair,” I say.

“Yes, it is fair. You are the only one who has ever invited the question.”

After a pause, he asks, “Are you doing this for the money or as a good deed to the world?”

I tell him that I’m not expecting much money for this at all, and I feel the question turn back on him: Why is he doing this? I know why I am—I want to understand how he sees himself. What does he think when confronted with his image in a magazine beside phrases such as “radical,” “brutal,” “Burmese bin Laden”? Descriptors borrowed from his enemy.

“Most of the people that interview me are like—they ask the questions, but they write whatever they want. They don’t care about other people,” he says.

“Hannah Beech [for a TIME Magazine cover story] asked me, ‘Why did you want to be a monk?’ I answered: ‘Just because of my desire.’” He pauses. “To be a good person,” he says. “She wrote it was because I had nothing to eat.”

He’s misremembered what Beech had written—or maybe doesn’t care—but tapped into a widespread rumor about Burma’s Buddhist monks: that they “robed” to escape poverty; as a monk, you’re guaranteed food, shelter, and an education.

He laughs again. “The journalist from CBS News asked me, ‘How do you see Aung San Suu Kyi?’ And I said: ‘In the political sense of view, she is brilliant, but for nationalism, she is useless.’ But they just quoted what I said about nationalism.”

“I’ll have to be careful I just don’t say you called her a monkey,” I joke.

Through his laughter, he bursts out: “It’s already happened! The BBC! Not about Suu Kyi, but they said I used the monkey for Muslims in 2013.”

Wirathu has misremembered many details in these examples, but his sense of being wounded, of personal insult, is real, and he’s keeping count. Hypocritical or sincere, I still can’t say. Instead, I’m disturbed to recognize that he might not know himself. 

 

5.

Photograph by Sarah Khatry

Wirathu on his daily routine: “I keep the monastery’s ledger. Then I write essays for Facebook. Then I give a speech. And if I hear of any bad Muslim man, I’ll apprehend him and take him to jail. And in this way, I will continue to protect the country.” He defines himself: “I will always be a nationalist, no matter the government.”

That I do admire.

I ask him, one more time, about the future of Myanmar. He tells me one more story.

“I always use the word ‘ruby’ in comparison to Aung San Suu Kyi. Even in the mud, she can distinguish herself.”

“She shines?”

“Yes.”

“Is this what you want for all of Myanmar? To be like that ruby?”

“Yes, of course I want to be like this.” Slip of translation? Maybe not. Wouldn’t we all.

“Even in the United States, as a developed country, many are being killed by the Muslims. For instance, 9/11. The United States needs to control its population of Muslims.”

As I leave, I stand and offer him my hand. But he keeps his folded together. “As a monk, I can’t,” he explains. While I am heading out the door, he wishes for my future success. I open my mouth instinctively to return the favor, but can’t say a thing.

The day before, the sky turned green over Mandalay and hailed, dropping studded ice balls of which a broken chunk could cover your eyes like goggles. Photos of dead livestock lying open-mouthed across fields in surrounding villages filled my Facebook feed.

A day before that, a monk in Myanmar’s Karen State led 500 villagers to occupy a Christian church’s compound and build a pagoda. He had dreamed of it.

On Myanmar’s New Year’s Day, about a week earlier, I worked through a crowd outside a sacred Buddhist cave and temple in Karen State to see into a fighting ring, where two boys struck and grappled, using their bare fists and feet, rebounding off the ropes and flipping over each other onto the floor. Every time they locked into a hold, the referee separated them to begin again. They’d dive in, be pulled apart, released, lash, and dive again. They knew what was at stake.


These dispatches are from #VQRTrueStory, our social-media experiment in nonfiction, which you can follow by visiting us on Instagram: @vqreview.

0 Comments

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.

Recommended Reading