An ultranationalist monk in Myanmar, who was once dubbed the “face of Buddhist terror” over his role in promoting religious hatred against Muslims, has received a prestigious national award as the country’s military rulers celebrate independence from Britain.
The monk, Wirathu, was awarded the honorific “Thiri Pyanchi” title for his “outstanding work for the good of the Union of Myanmar”, the military’s information team said on Tuesday, ahead of the country’s independence day celebrations.
Presented with the award by the country’s military ruler General Min Aung Hlaing, Wirathu was among hundreds of people receiving honorary titles and other forms of recognition as the country on Wednesday marked 75 years of independence from Britain.
Wirathu has long been known for his ultra-nationalist and anti-Islam rhetoric – particularly against Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority. In 2013, he appeared on the cover of Time Magazine under the title, The Face of Buddhist Terror.
He has called for boycotts of Muslim-owned businesses and restrictions on marriages between Buddhists and Muslims.
Human rights groups have accused Wirathu of helping to whip up animosity towards the Rohingya community, laying the foundations for a military operation in 2017 that forced an estimated 740,000 Rohingya to flee over the border to Bangladesh.
Several thousand prisoners were also scheduled for release to mark the national occasion on Wednesday, according to local media and a government spokesman, though it was not known if political prisoners would be among the reported 7,012 due to be freed.
Military chief Min Aung Hlaing also used Wednesday’s independence day celebrations to lash out at countries for intervening in his country’s affairs while thanking others for “positively” cooperating, namely China, India, Thailand, Laos and Bangladesh.
“I want to say thank you to some international and regional countries and organisations and individuals who positively cooperated with us… in the midst of all the pressure, criticisms and attacks,” the military leader said in a televised speech to mark independence day.
Myanmar has been in chaos since the military’s coup in February 2021 saw the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi and her detention along with other key officials. The military has also responded to pro-democracy protests and dissent with deadly force, imprisoning thousands and fighting a growing conflict with an anti-coup movement that has resulted in hundreds of thousands of people displaced.
While street protests are now rare due to military repression, the military is involved in near-daily clashes with the so-called People’s Defence Force who have taken up arms to fight for a return to democracy, as well as minority ethnic forces.
The UN Security Council last month adopted its first resolution on Myanmar in 74 years, demanding an end to violence in the country and for the military regime to free all political detainees. China and Russia abstained from the security council resolution, as did India.
Canada, the European Union, the UK and the US are among those who have imposed sanctions on Myanmar’s military and individuals deemed to have assisted the regime.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is leading diplomatic efforts to bring peace to Myanmar. However, the regime’s generals have been barred from ASEAN’s gatherings for failing to honour promises to start talks with opponents linked to Suu Kyi’s overthrown government.