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Myanmar junta honors anti-Muslim monk dubbed ‘face of Buddhist terror’

The file photo shows Buddhist monk Wirathu speaking during a rally in Yangon, Myanmar.

The military junta in Myanmar has honored an ultranationalist anti-Muslim Buddhist monk dubbed the 'Face of Buddhist terror" with a prestigious national award, and also announced the decision to free thousands of prisoners under amnesty.

In a statement on Tuesday, the military’s information team announced that junta chief General Min Aung Hlaing had given Wirathu the honorific ‘Thiri Pyanchi’ title for his “outstanding work for the good of the Union of Myanmar.”

Wirathu has long been known for his ultra-nationalist, anti-Muslim rhetoric, particularly against Myanmar’s Rohingya. He was once dubbed the ‘face of Buddhist terror’ over his role in promoting religious hatred against Rohingya Muslims.

Wirathu has called for boycotts of Muslim-owned businesses and restrictions on marriages between Buddhists and Muslims. He is accused by human rights groups of encouraging animosity toward the Rohingya. Wirathu was later jailed by Aung San Suu Kyi's government on sedition charges.

Back in September 2021, the junta announced it had released Wirathu after all charges against him had been dropped. Suu Kyi, 77, has been detained by the junta, which staged a military coup almost two years ago.

Last week, a junta court handed down its verdicts in the final charges against Suu Kyi, with a total of 33 years in prison.

The monk is also believed to have laid the foundations for a horrific military-led crackdown against the Rohingya community in 2017. The internationally-condemned operation forced 750,000 Rohingya from their homes into Bangladesh.

Thousands were killed, raped, tortured, or arrested in the crackdown, perpetrated with “genocidal intent,” according to the United Nations, which has described the community as the most persecuted minority in the world. At least 920,000 Rohingya refugees, half of them under 18, currently remain stuck in crowded conditions in refugee camps in Bangladesh’s southeastern border district of Cox’s Bazar.

Myanmar refuses to recognize the Rohingya as citizens, and officials even refrain from using the word ‘Rohingya,’ which means a native of Rakhine, a state in Myanmar where they had lived for centuries before the state-sponsored violence began in 2017. Bangladesh refuses to grant them citizenship, too.

The junta marked the 75th anniversary of Myanmar’s independence from Britain on Wednesday when state broadcaster MRTV reported that Myanmar’s military government would release 7,012 prisoners under an amnesty on the occasion.

“I want to say thank you to some international and regional countries and organizations and individuals who positively cooperated with us … in the midst of all the pressure, criticisms and attacks,” General Min said in his speech to mark Myanmar’s 75th independence day.

“We are closely working with neighboring countries such as China, India, Thailand, Laos and Bangladesh. We will work together for border stability and development,” he said, at a parade in the capital Naypyidaw.

The junta's leader also gave detailed plans for an election to be held later this year. The military is to control the entire process.

“Upon accomplishing the provisions of the state of emergency, free and fair elections will be held in line with the 2008 constitution, and further work will be undertaken to hand over state duties to the winning party in accordance with the democratic standards,” General Min said.

Myanmar has faced international isolation and Western-led sanctions since the military coup that seized power from Suu Kyi in early February 2021. The military mounted a brutal crackdown against post-coup street protests in chaos-hit Myanmar.

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