By Shibani Mahtani
Myanmar has banned this issue of Time magazine carrying the words, â€œThe Face of Buddhist Terror,â€ with a photo of a controversial Buddhist monk.
YANGON, Myanmar â€” Myanmarâ€™s government has banned this weekâ€™s international issue of TIME after widespread outrage in the country over the magazineâ€™s cover story featuring a controversial monk known as the Venerable Wirathu with the title â€œThe Face of Buddhist Terror.â€
Ye Htut, spokesperson for President Thein Sein, said on his official Facebook FB -0.21% page Tuesday evening that copies of the magazine â€œwould not be sold and distributed to prevent the recurrence of racial and religious conflict.â€
TIME profiles the Venerable Wirathu, leader of the Buddhist 969 movement that advocates the social exclusion of the countryâ€™s minority Muslim population. The movement has been accused of stirring up deadly clashes between Buddhists and Muslims that have spread across the country over the past year, leaving more than 140,000 people displaced and more than 200 dead, most of whom were Muslims. Buddhist mobs have attacked mosques and Muslim businesses, and stickers and pamphlets of the 969 movement have often appeared during and after the violence.
The monk denies responsibility for the violence. But in countless media interviews, he has expressed pride in being a radical Buddhist and has called for boycotts of Muslim-owned businesses. This Thursday, he will hold a forum in order to garner support for a law he has proposed to restrict marriages between Buddhist women and anyone outside their religion, which he hopes would carry a sentence of up to 10 years in prison.
Tuesdayâ€™s ban on the publication is the first time that Myanmarâ€™s government has put any blatant restrictions on Western media since it embarked on a series of sweeping political and economic reforms two years ago. Explaining its decision, the government said on state television Tuesday evening that the article could damage reconciliation between the two groups. It remains unclear how the Myanmar government would block access of the article online for internet users in Myanmar.
On Sunday, the presidentâ€™s office issued a rare statement condemning the magazine piece and labeling the 969 movement â€œpeaceful.â€ The statement defended the Venerable Wirathu, calling him a â€œson of Buddha,â€ and said the article could negatively affect the perception of Buddhists in the country. The statement followed calls for the boycott of TIME magazine on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, and vociferous statements from angry Buddhists attacking the Western media and the author behind the piece personally.
Analysts say, though, that this rare condemnation from the Myanmar government could serve to embolden more radical elements within the Buddhist community, and spur further attacks on the countryâ€™s minority Muslims. Some have also criticized the TIME magazine piece for being overly provocative and for implicating the Buddhist religion rather than specific actors for violence against the countryâ€™s Muslims.
The governmentâ€™s response and tacit support for the Venerable Wirathu and the 969 movement is a â€œreally bad sign of things to come for Myanmar Muslims,â€ said Maung Zarni, a Burmese academic at the London School of Economics, because it allows radical elements in society to operate with impunity. Mr. Maung Zarni also criticized the TIME magazine piece for reporting that he says can have a â€œheavy societal costâ€ on the Myanmar people by whipping up tensions between the two communities.
The â€œVenerable Wirathu,â€ who also has spoken out against the piece, says that he wonâ€™t sue TIME magazine for defamation, what he believes is keeping true to Buddhist principles of acceptance.