Rohingya crisis: Meeting Myanmar's hardline Buddhist monks

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Media caption,

The BBC's Fergal Keane spoke to Buddhists in the second city, Mandalay

The monks of Ma Ba Tha regard the international media with deep suspicion.

The leader of the organisation, Ashin Wirathu, covered his head and raised an umbrella to block our camera when we approached him in Mandalay.

Hostility towards journalists is a universal trait of hardline nationalist movements. In the Ma Ba Tha view of the world, there is only one truth: the Buddhist as victim of rampaging Islam.

Six months after they were banned by Aung San Suu Kyi's government the monks are still actively promoting their chauvinist agenda. I was granted an interview with eight leading clergy at the Kim Win Min Gyi monastery in Mandalay.

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The BBC met with the monks at their monastery

They had no problem with law abiding Muslim citizens said monk Eaindar Sakka Biwintha, but one just had to look at what happened to India where Islamic invaders had forced the people to become Muslims.

In this view of the world, the brutal crackdown which has sent more than 370,000 Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh is part of a long struggle against Islamic invasion of Buddhist lands.

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Watch: Who are the Rohingya?

Ma Ba Tha was supposed to have disbanded by July under a government clampdown on hate speech.

I wondered what the organisation felt about Aung San Suu Kyi's stance on the Rakhine crisis? He used the word "Bengali" - regarded by the Rohingya as an insult - to describe the fleeing refugees.

"Daw Aung San Su Kyi is on the right side in this Bengali issue and she is speaking the right things," he said.

"So I welcome her very happily. Because of her position some people are criticising her with lies and photoshopped pictures and insult her on Facebook. It is really disgusting to insult the leader of the country."

That is not an endorsement Ms Suu Kyi will cherish. But what Ma Ba Tha says matters a great deal. It has the ability to mobilise mass popular support around its policies and seems to regard the government ban with derision.

Image source, Reuters
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Ms Suu Kyi is facing international condemnation for her response to the crisis

There is no support or sympathy for the Rohingya among most of the population.

One of the most telling encounters I had was with the security spokesman of Ms Suu Kyi's party in Mandalay. Myint Aung Mo believes Buddhists in Rakhine are the true victims.

"What I want to say is our Myanmar Rakhine have been attacked by terrorists in Rakhine state. I want to emphasise our ethnic group. I don't know about Muslims. I am only concerned about our ethnic Buddhists. This is what I want to say."

These are the words of a man representing a party that is supposed to be committed to universal human rights.

If she were to condemn the crackdown, or even call for military restraint, Aung San Suu Kyi would find few supporters here. The military understands this well and there are senior figures who will take satisfaction from her present international isolation.

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Rohingya Muslims had to decide what to bring and what to leave.

There is an immediate human rights and humanitarian tragedy in Rakhine state. The current crackdown may well end in weeks, if not days.

But the issues of military power and Buddhist nationalism that Rakhine has exposed raise the most troubling questions for this country's future.