YANGON: Hardline Myanmar monk Wirathu, once dubbed the “face of Buddhist terror” for his anti-Muslim diatribes, toured Rakhine State on Thursday in a provocative visit soon after a bloody army crackdown on the Muslim Rohingya minority.
The firebrand monk visited Maungdaw, a town near the epicentre of the violence in the north of the state, according to Phoe Thar, who is travelling in his retinue, told AFP by phone.
Wirathu’s presence in Rakhine is likely to fuel religious tensions between the Buddhist Rakhine and the persecuted Rohingya, as well as with Myanmar’s wider Muslim population.
His trip follows a months-long military crackdown that the UN says claimed hundreds of Rohingya lives and sent more than 70,000 of the Muslim minority fleeing to Bangladesh.
UN investigators say the sweeps to clear out militant cells brought with them a campaign of rape and murder against the Rohingya that may amount to ethnic cleansing.
Myanmar’s more than one million Rohingya, who live mostly in Rakhine, are denied citizenship and loathed by many in the Buddhist-majority country, who say they are interlopers from Bangladesh.
Since the latest chapter in Rakhine’s conflict-strewn recent history, Buddhist nationalists have shut down several religious events across the country as well as two Yangon schools accused of illegally doubling up as mosques.
Khine Pyi Soe, vice-president of the Arakan (Rakhine) National Party which reviles the Rohingya, welcomed Wirathu’s visit.
“Even though our party does not have much money to donate… we will help if he needs something,” he told AFP.
Nationalist leaders said Wirathu had gone to Maungdaw to donate rice to local ethnic Rakhine Buddhists — several thousand of whom were also displaced by the recent violence.
But in a sign of concern over his rhetoric, Myanmar’s top Buddhist body in March banned Wirathu from preaching — an unprecedented slap down to a man whose hate speech has galvanised religious tensions.
On Thursday the UN’s High Commission for Refugees said almost 170,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar over the past five years to countries like Bangladesh and Malaysia because of violence and desperation.