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Buddhist monk dubbed "the face of terror"
A Buddhist monk in Myanmar has become the unlikely face of a growing anti-Muslim movement.

Hundreds of people have died in clashes between Buddhists and Muslims since fighting broke out last year.

Auskar Surbakti reports.
JIM MIDDLETON, PRESENTER: Human rights were on the agenda when Australia's Foreign Minister Bob Carr visited Myanmar a few days ago.

Not so much the behaviour of the authorities, as the religious violence which has plagued the country for much of the past 12 months.

Hundreds of people have died in clashes between Buddhists and Muslims since fighting broke out last year. Now, one Buddhist Monk has become the unlikely face of a growing anti Muslim movement.

Auskar Surbakti reports.

AUSKAR SURBAKTI, REPORTER: It’s not every day hundreds of Buddhist monks take to the streets in protest.

These are supporters of Myanmar's radical Monk U Wirathu. The man 'Time' magazine has dubbed 'The Face of Buddhist Terror'.

BUDDHIST MONK (TRANSLATED): I worry that the story from this magazine will bring more unnecessary clashes between different religions.

AUSKAR SURBAKTI: Based in Mandalay, Wirathu heads the so called ‘969’ movement, which is fast gaining momentum across Myanmar.

It is a Buddhist movement, the numbers 969 refer to the virtues of Buddha, the practices of the faith and the community.

It sounds like it should be a peaceful organisation, but it has come to embody a rabid nationalistic and religious sentiment, used to stir up hatred against minorities, mainly the country's Muslim community.

AL HAJ U AYE LWIN, PRESIDENT, ISLAMIC CENTRE OF MYANMAR: Myanmar is a pluralistic society where multi-racial and multi-religious people are living together and majority of them are Wirathu Buddhists and Buddhism has a strong influence on the people. Due to this fact, it can be a cohesive force for the people for uniting.

AUSKAR SURBAKTI: But Wirathu is a polarising figure, even among his fellow Buddhists. Last month, he joined around 200 other monks in Yangon to discuss ways to end rising religious violence which began in Rakhine state last year between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims.

Here, Wirathu, who is accused of fanning the tensions, announced one of his more controversial proposals, a law restricting marriages between Buddhists and Muslims.

U WIRATHU, BUDDHIST MONK (TRANSLATED): This law is my dream, I have given speeches like this in different places, so that we could propose this law.

AUSKAR SURBAKTI: Senior leaders at the meeting have distanced themselves from the proposal, but Wirathu and his followers are determined to present the idea to parliament.

U WIRATHU, BUDDHIST MONK (TRANSLATED): This marriage law means Myanmar girls can marry people of different religions but their future husbands have to become Buddhists. When Myanmar girls get married to Muslim men they're pressured to convert to Islam so this marriage law will prevent this and protect our society.

AUSKAR SURBAKTI: Wirathu has a history of inflaming religious tensions. In 2003 he was sentenced to 25 years in prison by the previous ruling Junta for inciting religious hatred but he was released last year under a general Amnesty.

His proposed interfaith marriage law has been condemned by the Opposition Leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other groups.

ZIN MAR AUNG, RAINFALL WOMEN’S GROUP: We perceive this law as sexist, yeah because totally focus on the women and actually the marriage is not just only women affected, but also both men and women are affected. The law is just only focused on the women. The concept of this law is based on the sexes and on the other hand nationalism.

AUSKAR SURBAKTI: But the law does have its supporters. Around 1,500 monks across the country have endorsed the proposal and women are also gathering signatures in support of Wirathu's law.

LWIN LWIN, MARRIAGE BILL SUPPORTER (TRANSLATED): Buddhist women tend to be patient and don't go against what is happening so they are tolerant and submissive. In the beginning, Buddhist women don't see Muslims as being from a different religious background so they treat them as neighbours or friend.

AUSKAR SURBAKTI: Since last year's clashes in Rakhine which left nearly 200 dead, the violence has spread to other parts of the country, including the north eastern town of Lashio and the central city of Meiktila.

Most of the victims have been Muslim but so far only Muslims have been jailed.

Wirathu says restrictions on inter faith marriages will reduce religious violence.

U WIRATHU (TRANSLATED): If Muslims cannot marry Buddhist girls easily, their population will decrease like in the case of Rakhine state, where they have higher population of Muslims, where they have more Muslims, there is more violence.

AUSKAR SURBAKTI: The rising religious tensions in Myanmar have marred the country's much applauded transition to democracy.

On a recent visit to Myanmar, Australia's Foreign Minister Bob Carr met with President Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi, with the issue of religious violence high on his agenda.

And there are growing calls for the country's new found friends, such as the United States and Europe, as well as fellow ASEAN members to pressure Myanmar's leaders to act.

JIM MIDDLETON: Auskar Surbakti reporting.
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