RANGOON — U Wirathu, the Mandalay-based monk who heads the “969” anti-Muslim movement, believes that democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi would not be a good president for Burma.
“I wish [President] Thein Sein to be re-elected. If he refuses to go for the post, my vote will go to Shwe Mann,” said the controversial monk—whose speeches and sermons are said to have fueled anti-Muslim violence across Burma since June 2012.
Both Suu Kyi, the former dissident and now opposition parliamentarian, and Shwe Mann, a former No. 3 in the old military junta, have stated their interest in becoming president after the 2015 parliamentary elections. Incumbent Thein Sein, Shwe Mann’s Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) colleague, has not said whether or not he will put his name forward after the 2015 elections.
While describing Suu Kyi as “a good revolutionary” and praising her for having “sacrificed her life for the people,” U Wirathu described the long-time political prisoner as “weak at governance.”
The monk went on to dismiss the National League for Democracy (NLD) leader’s presidential credentials.
“She doesn’t know about Burma and its nature. All she knows is to stage revolution and attack the government. So, if she became the president, the governance would be in chaos. Racial and religious conflict would deteriorate. There would be public unrest because people are not pleased with what she does,” he said.
However, the controversial monk claimed that if Suu Kyi were to speak out in favor of a controversial proposed inter-marriage law—which would force non-Buddhist men to convert to Buddhism in order to marry Buddhist women—the opposition leader would win the electorate’s support.
“If Daw Suu could realize the law, she could easily become the president and we could even dare to worship her,” said U Wirathu, using a Burmese honorific for the opposition leader.
Suu Kyi has been criticized in recent months for her apparent reluctance to speak up on behalf of Burma’s ethnic minorities, such as the Kachin, a mostly Christian group whose homeland of Kachin State is the site of an ongoing war between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Burmese Army.
Suu Kyi has also taken lumps internationally for not supporting the rights of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group who mostly live in western Arakan State but who are regarded by the government and many Burmese as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Speaking in Australia, where she is currently visiting, Suu Kyi reiterated her self-image as that of a politician rather than a human rights icon or activist. “Let me assure you, I’m no saint,” she said on Wednesday. “I look upon myself as a politician and not as an icon.”
Suu Kyi again rejected the term “ethnic cleansing” to describe the anti-Rohingya violence in western Burma. “When you use terms like ethnic cleansing—which I think is a little extreme—it just plays into the hands of extremists. There are extremists on both sides … we only have a few extremists but they can exercise great power,” she said, speaking at the Sydney Opera House.
Burma watchers speculate that Suu Kyi’s reticence on human rights issues is prompted by a political calculus: a fear of losing the majority Burman and Buddhist vote in the 2015 elections. Her efforts in recent months to drum up support for a Suu Kyi presidency come as ethnic and religious tensions are being stirred up nationwide by U Wirathu, who told The Irrawaddy that “if you favor too much human rights, your race and religion will be vanished as there are people who want to invade our country, destroy our race and religion on human rights basis.”
The logic is that if Suu Kyi speaks out against violence against the Rohingya, she will lose votes to the incumbent USDP.
Suu Kyi’s long-time spokesman Nyan Win told The Irrawaddy that “there are no Rohingya in Burma’s history. There are Bengalis who try to come across to Burma and claim citizenship.”
However, the former parliamentarian and political prisoner added that the 1982 Citizenship Law, which scholars say denies the Rohingya status as an ethnic group in Burma, should be amended, saying that once the measure is revised, “they can then apply to be citizens.”
Asked to put a number on how many of the estimated 800,000 Rohingya in Burma would be entitled to citizenship under such a reform, Nyan Win said he did not know.
And lamenting the recent violence between Buddhists and Muslims across Burma, which has mostly displaced Muslims, Nyan Win told The Irrawaddy that “all the people in the conflict are human beings and need to be treated like human beings.”
With additional reporting by Kyaw Phyo Tha.