YANGON – Myanmar’s President Thein Sein has lashed out against Time magazine’s cover story on “Buddhist terror” for undermining Government efforts to ease sectarian tensions in the country.
In a statement issued Sunday night, President Thein Sein said the Time lead article The Face of Buddhist Terror, featuring Myanmar’s extremist monk Wirathu, could be “detrimental to the trust building between religions in Myanmar, and damage the image of Buddhism which has been the main religion of Myanmar for thousands of years.” The President defended Wirathu as a member of the Sangha, the equivalent of the Buddhist clergy.
“Buddhist monks, also known as Sanghas, are noble people who keep the 277 precepts or moral rules, and strive peacefully for the prosperity of Buddhism,” his statement said.
Wirathu has been accused of stoking anti-Muslim sentiments with his 969 movement, launched in February, that calls on Buddhists to boycott Muslim shops and businesses.
More recently he launched a campaign to pass legislation on marriages between Buddhist women and Muslim men that would require the women to receive prior permission from their parents and authorities and the men to convert to Buddhism.
The draft law was criticized by democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi as being discriminatory and a violation of human rights.
Wirathu, based in Mandalay, is no stranger to controversy.
In 2003, he was sentenced to 25 years in jail for inciting anti-Muslim hatred, but was released last year under a general amnesty.
Rising sectarian violence has been among the greatest challenges to Thein Sein, who came to power in March 2011, and has since pushed through political and economic reforms.
In June 2012, Buddhist communities in the Rakhine State attacked Rohingya Muslims, leaving 167 people dead and 125,000 people homeless.
There have been at least three anti-Muslim riots this year in central and northern Myanmar, leaving thousands homeless.
Thein Sein, Myanmar’s first elected President in decades, insisted that his Government does not discriminate against Muslims.
“Although the majority of Myanmar people are Buddhists, the Government has recognized in Section 362 of the constitution that Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Animism as are the existing religions in the country,” he said in his statement.
He called for mutual trust building among the religions to avoid undesirable conflicts in the country’s fledgling democracy.