SITTWE, Myanmar — Ashin Wirathu, a radical Buddhist monk in Myanmar, has been charged with sedition over what prosecutors say are defamatory remarks he made about the nation’s civilian leader, the Nobel laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
The most notorious of a band of extremist monks, Ashin Wirathu has been traveling the country delivering diatribes against Myanmar’s minority Muslims and accusing Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s government of foiling the military’s efforts to defend the Buddhist-majority nation against what he calls a Muslim onslaught.
In one speech this month, Ashin Wirathu said that the civilian government was funded by foreigners and that a member of the government was “sleeping with a foreigner.”
Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi was married to a British academic who died of cancer in 1999 while she was under house arrest by the military junta that controlled the country for nearly half a century.
For years, Myanmar’s military has systematically persecuted members of the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority. A 2017 campaign of murder, rape and arson constituted genocide, according to United Nations experts.
Most Rohingya have since fled from Myanmar’s far western Rakhine State to neighboring Bangladesh. But Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 “for her nonviolent struggle for democracy and human rights,” has refused to criticize the militaryover the atrocities carried out against the largely stateless Muslim minority.
Ashin Wirathu and other ultranationalist monks paint Myanmar as a peaceful Buddhist land being overrun by Muslims, even though they made up only about 5 percent of the population even before the majority of Rohingya were expelled from the country. The military junta jailed Ashin Wirathu for eight years for inciting hatred.
In 2014, two years after Ashin Wirathu’s release, nationalist monks formed a group called the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, known by its local acronym, Ma Ba Tha. The group, which gained national membership and enthusiastic support particularly from women, pushed successfully for laws making it more difficult for Buddhist women to marry outside their faith.
But in 2017, before the worst of the violence against the Rohingya, Myanmar’s state body governing Buddhism banned Ashin Wirathu from public preaching for a year, a prohibition that the monk protested by posting pictures of himself online with an “X” taped over his mouth. The same body also banned Ma Ba Tha, but the group merely changed its name and continued its activities.
Even as Ashin Wirathu was punished by the state monastic authority, he continued to roam the country to deliver his anti-Muslim sermons, including in Rakhine State, home to the Rohingya. Soon after the ethnic cleansing campaign began in 2017, he was pictured in the state news media on a tour of Northern Rakhine, the epicenter of the anti-Rohingya violence.
In his hate-filled sermons, delivered in a deceptive monotone, Ashin Wirathu has referred to Muslims as “crazy dogs” that are “breeding so fast,” “stealing our women, raping them” and “would like to occupy our country.”
He has instructed Buddhists to “make your blood boil” to ward off Muslims, whom he accuses of using hyperfertility to inundate Buddhist-majority nations.
At a rally last year in Yangon, Myanmar’s commercial capital, Ashin Wirathu said that the day Myanmar officials were brought before the International Criminal Court, which is conducting a “preliminary examination” of the Rohingya expulsion, was “the day that Wirathu holds a gun.” Such militant statements go against the peaceful tenets of Buddhism, but Ashin Wirathu has said that extreme times require extreme measures.
Although Ashin Wirathu had a poster of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi decorating the wall of his wooden monastery in the city of Mandalay, he has accused her political party, the National League for Democracy, of secretly supporting a Muslim agenda.
During Myanmar’s decades of military rule, many of the party’s leaders were imprisoned, including Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, who was freed in 2010. In 2015 elections designed to establish a military-civilian hybrid government, her party won by a landslide. But unlike in previous elections, it did not field any Muslim candidates.
Already, anti-Muslim sentiment was festering across the country, with extremist monks cheering on the persecution of the Rohingya and other Muslims.
This month, a group of nationalists in Yangon stormed Muslim prayer halls set up for the holy month of Ramadan. Local officials have called for the arrest of the mob’s leaders, but they have gone into hiding.
Myo Thu Soe, a police spokesman, said that while charges against Ashin Wirathu were filed on Tuesday, the police had not yet received an arrest warrant for Yangon, where aides said Ashin Wirathu arrived on Wednesday to meet with the state Buddhist authority. That meeting was later canceled.
“I’m in Yangon. I am not hiding,” Ashin Wirathu told The Times on Wednesday. “They can come arrest me. I’m not afraid of prison.”
Ashin Wirathu’s supporters have railed against the government religious body for its actions against radical monks.
“They are just always trying to arrest monks,” said U Yarza, one of Ashin Wirathu’s aides. “It’s very disappointing for the country’s Buddhism.”
Ashin Wirathu “does not fear anything even though he will be arrested,” he said, adding, “He is always doing the right things for our country.”