Myanmar, Sri Lanka Buddhist hard-liners join hands

A hard-line Buddhist monk from Myanmar known for his anti-Muslim stance said his movement would join hands with a like-minded Sri Lankan group to “protect” Buddhists, whom he called an endangered world minority.

Ashin Wirathu, leader of 969, a fundamentalist movement, was a special invitee Sunday at a rally of Bodu Bala Sena, or Buddhist Power Force, a Sri Lankan group accused of instigating deadly violence against the country’s minority Muslims in June.

Joining 969 could further boost an already soaring support base for Bodu Bala Sena, an ultranationalist group that has enlisted thousands of youth and Buddhist monks in just two years of existence. This, in turn, could exacerbate mistrust and tensions between Sri Lanka’s majority Sinhalese-Buddhists and its Muslims.

Politically, President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s credibility among Muslims stands to erode further after his government allowed Wirathu to visit Sri Lanka despite opposition from Muslim groups, including his own allies. Rajapaksa is already under criticism for not taking action against Buddhist monks whose inflammatory speeches are blamed for anti-Muslim violence in June that killed two people and wounded dozens, and saw many shops and homes set on fire in three western towns.

Three local body guards accompanied Wirathu as he walked onstage for his speech Sunday at a packed indoor stadium in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital.

“Buddhists are a world minority. If we don’t protect this small group, remember, it will be the end of the Buddhists,” Wirathu said. “To achieve this … my 969 organization will work hand in hand with Sri Lanka’s Bodu Bala Sena.”

Sri Lankan Muslim groups urged the government not to allow Wirathu to visit the country, warning it could lead to religious tensions. However, in his speech, Wirathu thanked Rajapaksa for granting him a visa despite “attempts of sabotage by extremists.”

Muslim leaders were not immediately reachable for comment.

Bodu Bala Sena accuses Sri Lanka’s Muslims, who comprise about 10 percent of the population, of trying to take over the country by having more children, marrying Sinhalese-Buddhist women and taking over businesses. Buddhists account for more than 70 percent of the country’s 20 million people.

Wirathu’s 969 started on the fringes of society, but now boasts supporters nationwide in Myanmar.

Hundreds of people died in 2012 sectarian violence in Myanmar, with about 140,000, mostly Muslims, forced from their homes. Buddhist monks were accused of instigating and sometimes actively participating in the violence.