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Myanmar’s Military Honours Anti-Muslim Monk, Frees Prisoners

August 8, 2023

As Myanmar’s military authorities commemorate the country’s independence from Britain, they have given a coveted national award to an ultranationalist monk who was once labeled the “face of Buddhist terror” for his role in inciting religious hatred against Muslims.

Military officials said on Tuesday that Wirathu, a monk, would be given the honorary title of “Thiri Pyanchi” in recognition of his “outstanding work for the good of the Union of Myanmar” in advance of independence day celebrations on Wednesday.

Wirathu has a history of using anti-Muslim and ultranationalist language, often directed at the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar. Time Magazine featured him as “The Face of Buddhist Terror” on its cover in 2013.

He has advocated for a ban on marriages between Buddhists and Muslims and a boycott of businesses owned by Muslims.

In 2017, a military operation drove an estimated 740,000 Rohingya to escape over the border to Bangladesh, and human rights groups have accused Wirathu of trying to drum up hate towards the community.

Local media and a government spokesman said that 7,012 convicts would be released on Wednesday to celebrate the national holiday. It was unclear whether or not this number included political prisoners.

As the country celebrated its independence on Wednesday, military chief Min Aung Hlaing took the opportunity to strike out at countries that had meddled in Burma’s affairs and congratulate those that had “positively” cooperated with Burma, especially China, India, Thailand, Laos, and Bangladesh.

Despite “all the pressure, criticisms, and attacks,” the military leader said in a televised speech on independence day, “I want to say thank you to some international and regional countries and organizations and individuals who positively cooperated with us.”

Since the military overthrew the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi in February 2021 and detained her and other key leaders, the country of Myanmar has been in disarray. The military has used lethal force in response to rallies and opposition in favor of democracy, leading to the imprisonment of thousands of individuals and the growth of a war with an anti-coup movement that has displaced hundreds of thousands.

While the military has effectively suppressed street protests, it is engaged in near-daily skirmishes with the so-called People’s Defence Force, which has taken up arms to fight for a return to democracy, and with minority ethnic forces.

Last month, the United Nations Security Council passed its first resolution on Myanmar in 74 years, calling for a stop to violence and the release of all political prisoners by the military authorities. India, China, and Russia all voted “no” on the resolution before the Security Council.

Sanctions against Myanmar’s military and individuals deemed to have aided the dictatorship have been imposed by a number of countries, including Canada, the European Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Diplomatic efforts to restore calm in Myanmar are being spearheaded by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The generals of the regime, however, have been banned from attending ASEAN meetings since they have not begun negotiations with Suu Kyi’s former government’s opponents.

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