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Though his fiery sermons have been reported as inciting violence, Wirathu disassociated himself from such acts, saying that his own followers were not under his control.

He told me that Buddhists had the right “to defend themselves” and if at that time they “inflict injury,” then that can be excused.

When asked, he implied that there were a host of people out to destroy Buddhism, and I kept pressing him to tell me whom they were. Or more precisely, “Islamic extremists,” as he called them, people who denigrated Buddhism.

Not all Muslims were extremists, he said, though most were under their influence, so virtually all Muslims in Myanmar were suspect.

When I asked others in Mandalay they could only think of a handful of cases of ethnic intermarriage.

Wirathu also thought that Muslims were secretive, since their mosques were not open to everyone.

He also thought that their numbers were greatly expanding in Myanmar through immigration and having relatively larger families, and that this was a purposeful design to dilute the purity of Buddhist culture in the country and eventually take control.

“They are trying to transform Myanmar into a Muslim state,” Wirathu said.

It was not clear how frequently he thought this sort of thing happened.

He claimed that this was the reason that he and the 969 movement are trying to protect Burmese Buddhism from what he regards as a kind of cultural annihilation.

Wirathu insisted that his only role was to preach the truth.

Hence it was widely regarded as an anti-Islamic hate movement. Though Wirathu is only one of 14 senior monks on the governing body of the 2500-man monastic complex, he clearly occupied a leading position within it.

When I talked with Wirathu recently in his comfortable office in the Ma Soe Yein monastery in the central Burmese city of Mandalay he was prepared to defend himself against the terrorism label. “If we support Buddhism we are creating peace in the world,” he said repeatedly. Only the framed pictures on his wall—mostly newspaper clippings and pictures of himself—were indications of his charismatic, rabble-rousing reputation.

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