Ultra-nationalist Myanmar monk walks free from prison


Ultra-nationalist monk Pamaukkha walks in Shwedagon pagoda in Yangon on 9 March 2018, after being released from prison. Photo: Thura/Mizzima

An ultra-nationalist Myanmar monk was defiant upon his release from prison on Friday after serving time for an anti-Rohingya protest in 2016, a rare punishment handed to one of the country's hardline Buddhist clergymen.

Parmaukkha, who served a three-month jail term for inciting unrest, has helped peddle a fiery brand of Buddhist nationalism and Islamophobia in Myanmar, a country accused of waging an ethnic cleansing campaign against Rohingya Muslims.

The monk was arrested in November over a rally he held outside the US Embassy in Yangon in April 2016 to protest against America's use of the word "Rohingya".

The Buddhist-majority nation refuses to recognise the Rohingya as an ethnic group, referring pejoratively to the community as "Bengalis" and insisting they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

The jail time appears to have done little to dampen the resolve of the abbot, who declared himself unrepentant upon his release.

"There is no Rohingya ethnic group among the 135 ethnic groups in Myanmar," he told reporters after returning to his Yangon monastery on Friday.

"The person who made the mistake was the ambassador of the United States (to Myanmar)," he said, referring to the embassy's use of the word Rohingya, which had sparked him and hundreds of others to protest.

The influential monk was released from Yangon's Insein prison at dawn to the cheers of several dozen supporters who scattered petals in front of him as he left the jail.

- 'Buddhist Bin Laden' -

Anti-Muslim hate speech aimed the Rohingya has been brewing in Myanmar for several years, often spilling over into bouts of bloodshed.

But hatreds have surged in the wake of a ruthless military crackdown that has forced 700,000 Rohingya out of the country since August. 

The UN says the campaign amounts to ethnic cleansing and possible genocide.

But many in the Buddhist majority support the crackdown, which the army says was needed to crush a Rohingya militant uprising. 

Over the past year religious authorities have taken some steps to curb the influence of ultra-nationalist monks like Parmaukkha.

His release coincides with the end of a year-long public speaking ban on Wirathu -- another firebrand monk known as the face of Myanmar's Buddhist nationalist movement. 

Wirathu, once dubbed the "Buddhist Bin Laden", was barred from giving public sermons last year by a council of senior monks who said he had "repeatedly delivered hate speech against religions to cause communal strife".

But he has flouted the ban on several occasions.

Wirathu was also recently kicked off Facebook, where he had amassed a huge following with incendiary anti-Muslim posts.

The social media giant said it took down his page in January in accordance with a policy that prohibits "people dedicated to promoting hatred and violence against others".

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