LONDON—One of the twisted inspirations for a campaign of ethnic cleansing in Burma is a Buddhist monk who has dedicated his life to spreading lies about Muslims, inciting nationalist violence and preaching hate via social media.
His hero is Donald Trump.
The hate-monk Ashin Wirathu is at the vanguard as Burma plunges fast into the heart of darkness. He has spent years preaching to crowds—often made up of children—that the county’s small Muslim minority are “snakes” and “dogs.” He has compared them to the African catfish—an invasive species that outbreeds and outgrows their rivals, and ultimately destroys their ecosystem. “Muslims are exactly like these fish,” he says in The Venerable W., a documentary that will play at the New York Film Festival on Friday.
Muslim villages are now in flames, and hundreds of thousands are fleeing outbreaks of violence in what the United Nations has branded a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
Veteran movie director Barbet Schroeder headed into the jungle, undercover, with a handheld digital SLR camera and two young assistants to record this profile of Wirathu. The resulting film is a heart-stopping look at a man who has helped to push a community to the brink of collapse through nationalism and anti-Islamic hatred.
More than half a million Rohingya Muslims are believed to have fled Burma in the last two months as their homes are burnt to the ground amid reports of arbitrary arrest, rape, and torture. Desperate to reach the relative safety of refugee camps over the border in Bangladesh, many are risking their lives to flee. Ten children died when an overcrowded boat capsized during a river crossing on Sunday.
Schroeder, 76, who is more accustomed to Hollywood where he directed Single White Female and the celebrated JFK assassination episode of Mad Men, told The Daily Beast he had been willing to risk his safety to film Burma’s radical Buddhists in order to capture a malevolent movement that he believed to be unique in the world.
“I was just desperately trying to understand how Buddhism could take that form—because for me Buddhism is one of the treasures of humanity. So, how could that happen?” he said.
“The answer is that I went to the end of the world to find out about Buddhism, and very soon I realized I was not seeing something special to Burma but something happening all over the planet—the rise of Facebook, the rise of nationalism, and the rise of populism.”
Wirathu has been preaching the same populist message of anti-Islamic hatred for more than a decade. He was jailed in 2003 for inciting religious hatred and conflict. His anti-Rohingya sermons were recorded on cassette tape and distributed across the country before a wave of riots led to two mosques being destroyed, Muslim homes and businesses burnt down, and 11 people killed.
When he was released from prison under an amnesty scheme in 2012, Burma had changed. The movie shows footage of Wirathu addressing a crowd of young monks with digital cameras as he celebrates his release with an incendiary speech. “The monastery must be a rampart,” he declares. “It must be an army begetting soldiers.”
In the years since, Burma has undergone an internet revolution and Wirathu is now able to spread his messages of hate to tens of thousands of people at a time. The film shows the radical monk posting a message on Facebook in July 2014 about the rape of a woman by Muslim men; two people are killed in a subsequent riot but it eventually becomes clear that no such rape took place.
Sexual violence takes on a peculiar prominence in the warped mind of Wirathu. He says that his visceral hatred of Muslims began when he was 12 and a 14-year-old girl was raped by Muslim men from a nearby village.
Wirathu claims that he simply wants to protect his people from the threat of Muslim predators. The reality is different, of course, as independent reports on the spiraling violence in Burma show that it is the Rohyinga Muslims who have been subjected to widespread rape and torture at the hands of Buddhists and Army personnel.
Nonetheless it was another rape that Wirathu seized upon soon after his release to relaunch his campaign of Islamophobia. On May 28, 2012, a young Buddhist woman was raped and murdered by three Muslim men.
Wirathu helped to transform the crime into a symbol of sectarian hatred and violence; by the end of the following month 80 people had been killed, 100,000 displaced, and hundreds of homes burnt down, including entire neighborhoods. Wirathu and his followers printed leaflets and DVDs that could be distributed to thousands describing the crime and its bloody aftermath.
“He is a showman,” said Schroeder, who was in town for the London Film Festival. “Like Trump, he became a leader out of his manipulation and brilliance in knowing how to find the right words—formulas that stun the public.”
Schroeder’s interviews with Wirathu took place during the U.S. presidential campaign and his familiarity with global politics was clear. He attacked “Merkel and her kind” for letting Muslim refugees into their countries. “In the USA, if people want to maintain peace and stability they have to choose Donald Trump,” he says.
The violence has intensified in the last five years leaving Burma in a state of crisis and placing the young democracy at the focal point of horrifying global news coverage. On Thursday, The New York Times published an excruciating eyewitness account of a mother watching her baby being thrown into a fire before she was gang-raped by government soldiers.
Investigators for the United Nations and NGOs believe somewhere between 1,000 and 5,000 Rohingya Muslims have been murdered by government troops, who are also accused of decapitating boys, raping girls, and executing unarmed civilians.
Not all of this can be traced back to Wirathu, of course, but there can be no doubt that the kind of ethnic hatred and dehumanization pushed by the monk and his acolytes appears to have engulfed the nation.
When Schroeder set out to make his movie, he was focused on cinema, not journalism. The Swiss filmmaker had thoroughly researched his protagonist but he could have no idea how quickly the country would spiral into brutality.
“I was resisting the political news of the movie, but, of course, now there’s a point when you’re looking at a genocide—so you can’t resist anymore to use the political news for a movie that can save people or can save something,” he said.
Many of the most recent atrocities in Burma have not been caught on camera, but this film offers a chilling glimpse into the hell that is unfolding. In one scene, pieced together from found footage, we see a Muslim writhing in flames. A man in the crowd of vigilantes says simply: “Let him die.”
It’s a moment of such banal indifference that it turns the stomach.
“I’m very pessimistic but if this movie can help people understand what is happening, I’m happy,” said Schroeder.
With Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi, former darling of the West and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, playing down the barbaric reports, this film’s unflinching honesty has succeeded in casting a spotlight into the darkness.