TIME magazine has sparked outrage in Myanmar with the cover of its July 1 edition, which depicts controversial Mandalay monk U Wirathu with the headline “The Face of Buddhist Terror”.
The article detailed Buddhist extremism in Myanmar, Thailand and Sri Lanka, arguing that “[i]n the reckoning of religious extremism ... Buddhism has largely escaped trial”.
It quoted U Wirathu as saying in an interview that Muslims “are breeding so fast, and they are stealing our women, raping them”.
“They would like to occupy our country, but I won’t let them. We must keep Myanmar Buddhist,” he said.
In a sermon mentioned in the article, he preaches that “[n]ow is the time to rise up, to make your blood boil”.
But the front-page focus on Myanmar’s Buddhist community and U Wirathu of Masoeyein monastery, who has been accused of stoking anti-Muslim sentiment through the “969” campaign, angered many – and they quickly took to Facebook to share their views. While the TIME article is behind a paywall, both the original English version and Myanmar-language translations were circulating by email and social media last week.
By midday on June 22, the page “We Boycott Time magazine for their choice of Wirathu as ‘Buddhist terror’” had attracted more than 10,000 “likes” and become an outlet to criticise both TIME and the author of the article, Hannah Beech.
One Facebook user, Aung Ko U, commented that he “severely object[s]” to the article as it “insults not only U Wirathu but also our Buddhism. Even though I haven’t read the full story, it’s so clear unfair portrayal,” he said.
Another Facebook user, Ko Min Aung, said he was “too sad to speak” after seeing the photo.
“I don’t agree with all his ideas but I’m not going to criticise him because he didn’t harm anyone personally. Internationally he might look like a Buddhist extremist but he just preaches to respect Buddhism,” he said.
In an interview with The Myanmar Times shortly after the article was published, U Wirathu questioned why TIME did not also label United States President Barack Obama a terrorist for his campaigns against Muslim extremists in the Middle East.
“Why are they saying Wirathu is a terrorist? What I am doing, saying and writing is for the sake of national security, just as Obama is doing,” U Wirathu said.
He said that TIME should not have linked Buddhism and terrorism on their cover.
“I do not plan to make any response to TIME magazine but I need to explain about this issue,” he said. “I don’t have any support from the government, political parties or Sangha [monastic order]. I am working because of my faith.”
Myanmar-based daily publications were equally critical of the magazine, with many splashing the TIME cover on the front page of their June 21 editions.
Eleven Media Group chief executive officer U Than Htut Aung wrote in The Daily Eleven said he didn’t agree with many things U Wirathu has said but the monk has not committed any violent acts.
“In my opinion as a journalist the TIME presentation of Buddhism is not fair. It is an insult to our country and Buddhism and I object to it. What is more, TIME has disturbed our transition to democracy and provoked more conflict,” he wrote.
However, the Eleven boss said he agreed with some points in the article, including the importance of separating religion from government and that Buddhist extremism has negatively impacted Muslim businesses.
Academic Maung Zarni said the article itself was mostly “commendable” but “made two seriously negative contributions to Myanmar’s already tense and insecure society”.
“First, it will most likely add more fuel to the already tense social relations, instigating, unwittingly, future ... anti-Muslim violence by the now really outraged Buddhist masses as evidenced in the angry reactions from Myanmar’s opinion makers and leading dissidents,” he said in a post on his blog.
“Second, it enables, if unwittingly, the state and its central management ... to continue concealing its own involvement in numerous disguises.”
It was unclear whether hard copies of the magazine would go on sale in Myanmar.
U Maung Maung Lwin, the general manager of Innwa Bookstore on Pansodan Road, declined to comment on the cover image or article.
“We haven’t got TIME magazine for July yet and I haven’t read it,” he said.