Portrait of Myan­mar’s ‘Ven­er­a­ble W’ chills Cannes

“I am afraid to call him Wi­rathu be­cause even his name scares me,” the highly-ac­claimed di­rec­tor told AFP. “I just call him W.”

Mizzima Business Weekly - - CON­TENTS -

Bar­bet Schroeder spent months with Ugan­dan dic­ta­tor Idi Amin at the height of his power, when corpses would wash up ev­ery morn­ing on the shores of Lake Vic­to­ria and Kam­pala was rife with ru­mours that he was eat­ing his op­po­nents. But in his decades of doc­u­ment­ing evil, the vet­eran Swiss film­maker says he has never been as scared by any­one as he was by a Burmese Bud­dhist monk named Wi­rathu.

“I am afraid to call him Wi­rathu be­cause even his name scares me,” the highly-ac­claimed di­rec­tor told AFP. “I just call him W.”

“The Ven­er­a­ble W”, his chill­ing portrait of the monk who has been ac­cused of preach­ing hate and in­cit­ing at­tacks on Myan­mar’s Mus­lim Ro­hingya mi­nor­ity, has been hailed by crit­ics at the Cannes film fes­ti­val as a “stir­ring doc­u­men­tary about eth­nic cleans­ing in ac­tion”.

What dis­mays Schroeder is that Wi­rathu, whom Time mag­a­zine dubbed “The face of Bud­dhist ter­ror” in a 2013 cover, is ut­terly un­fazed by the chaos and suffering he has un­leashed.

Bud­dhism is sup­posed to be the phi­los­o­phy of peace, en­light­en­ment and un­der­stand­ing, he thought. It helped cen­tre Schroeder’s own life when he made a pil­grim­age to In­dia to fol­low on the path of the Bud­dha 50 years ago to “cure my­self of my jeal­ousy”.

But the hate speech and fake news that Wi­rathu spreads from his Man­dalay monastery, ac­cus­ing Mus­lims -- barely four per­cent of the coun­try’s pop­u­la­tion -- of try­ing to out­breed the ma­jor­ity Burmese, made Schroeder’s head spin.

Devil­ishly clever

“He is much more in­tel­li­gent and in con­trol of him­self that I thought, devil­ishly clever in fact,” said Schroeder, who shot his film se­cretly in Myan­mar un­til he at­tracted the at­ten­tion of the se­cret po­lice. “It was like be­ing faced by a good Je­suit or some very clever com­mu­nist leader back in the day,” he said. Rather than “ques­tion him like a jour­nal­ist”, Schroeder just let the monk talk as he did with the other sub­jects of his “Tril­ogy of Evil”, which be­gan with “Gen­eral Idi Amin Dada” in 1974 and in­cludes his 2007 film “Ter­ror’s Ad­vo­cate” about the French lawyer Jac­ques Verges, who de­fended Nazi war crim­i­nal Klaus Bar­bie and Ser­bian leader Slo­bo­dan Milo­se­vic.

“If you wait long enough, slowly the truth would come out,” Schroeder said. “That is what I did with Idi Amin and Jac­ques Verges.”

“When he lied, I’d say, ‘Tell me more, how in­ter­est­ing... So, the Ro­hingya burn their own houses so they can get money from the United Na­tions...’”

“For me one of the most shock­ing mo­ments is when he says they de­stroy their own houses, and then you see a crowd of maybe 3,000 peo­ple flee­ing their burning homes. It’s night­mar­ish.”

In an­other telling scene Wi­rathu, leader of the Bud­dhist na­tion­al­ist 969 move­ment, is shown watch­ing Mus­lims be­ing beaten to death in Meik­tila near Man­dalay in 2013, a month af­ter he gave an anti-Mus­lim speech there.

Hate speech ‘es­ca­lat­ing’

Schroeder said the monk had re­turned “all peace and love” to the town to call for calm, “but he was at least in­di­rectly re­spon­si­ble for what was hap­pen­ing.”

“Wi­rathu said all this hap­pened be­cause a monk was killed by the Mus­lims. But I read the pam­phlet that sparked the ri­ots and it sounded very much like his speeches and that he could have writ­ten it.”

Last month, Wi­rathu -- who has been called the Bud­dhist Bin Laden -- stirred ten­sion by tour­ing Mus­lim ar­eas in trou­bled Rakhine State de­spite Myan­mar’s top Bud­dhist body ban­ning him from preach­ing in March.

Hun­dreds of Ro­hingya Mus­lims died in 2012 when sec­tar­ian vi­o­lence ripped the state apart, and tens of thou­sands still lan­guish in fetid dis­place­ment camps.

More than 70,000 have fled into neigh­bour­ing Bangladesh since Oc­to­ber af­ter the mil­i­tary launched a months-long crack­down that UN in­ves­ti­ga­tors say cost the lives of hun­dreds of the per­se­cuted mi­nor­ity and may amount to crimes against hu­man­ity.

Last week a UN en­voy crit­i­cised the gov­ern­ment of Aung San Suu Kyi for not clamp­ing down on “hate speech and in­cite­ment to dis­crim­i­na­tion” which she claimed “ap­pear to be dras­ti­cally es­ca­lat­ing”.

In the film Schroeder, 75, seems to trace Wi­rathu’s Is­lam­o­pho­bia to the rape and mur­der of a Bud­dhist wo­man by a Mus­lim in his home­town of Kyaukse.

But in per­son he is not so sure. “An­other the­ory is that his mother left his fa­ther and mar­ried a Mus­lim, or be­cause his monastery was burned when he was 14. But ev­ery time I checked I was never sure. “Why was Hitler like he was? We will never know how this garbage col­lected in his mind.”

The film maker with Ashin Wi­rathu.

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