When I and two colleagues interviewed radical anti-Muslim monk Wirathu in April this year, a youthful man in his late twenties accompanied us to the monastery in Mandalay. A former monk himself, he had met Wirathu some time before and was able to arrange the meeting fairly easily – Wirathu, it is now known, is very eager to speak to media and get his message out. An English teacher at a local school, a law graduate in her late twenties, acted as translator.

In the taxi to the monastery, we began picking the young man’s brains about Wirathu. At first it was done cautiously, but as it became apparent that he opposed the monk’s extreme anti-Muslim views, we were able to relax and gain a rare insight from a Burmese who knew the monk personally.

Controversial Burmese Buddhist monk Wirathu. Pic: AP.

The interview with Wirathu took close to two hours, much of it taken up with his lengthy observations about the Islamic peril afflicting Burma – mobs of rapists, thieves and proselytizers terrorizing villages as they swept inland from the western border with Bangladesh. Some statements were so outlandish they drew incredulous smiles from us interviewers. Afterwards he handed over a batch of DVDs and booklets that he said explained his position in greater detail. We left the building, walked past the enlarged and gory photos of Buddhists supposedly killed by Muslims, and towards the taxi.

The translator delivered the first shock. “It’s amazing how much information he has,” she said, evidently impressed by the monk’s measured delivery and wealth of statistics. Asked whether she believed everything Wirathu said (“100 percent of rape cases are by Muslims,” being one choice quote), she said she wasn’t sure, but understood that there was a significant threat facing Buddhism in Burma.

Several days later I received a text message from the man who arranged the interview. He had apparently u-turned. “I watched Wirathu CD. I feel very angry – they take our air, water, land; they make terrorism!” he wrote.

It took only a presentation by Wirathu to cause the man to flip positions on Muslims, and so spectacularly. The power of the propaganda Wirathu produces – delivered in his monotonal, almost soporific, voice; a stony emotionless face – is chilling, and those are but two people among possibly millions of Burmese that have bought into his campaign to vilify Islam. For those who dismiss his words as the ramblings of a sociopath, the extent of their reach is something to really think about.

The reaction to the recent Time Magazine interview with Wirathu also speaks volumes about the psyche of the anti-Muslim movement, and/or those who cloak their prejudice in the rhetoric of democratic advancement.

Preident Thein Sein and his spokesperson Ye Htut have personally weighed in on the furor surrounding the interview. Their concern is that it could affect government efforts to rebuild harmony between Buddhists and Muslims (quite where these are I’m not sure), or sully the reputation of Buddhism. Nowhere do they address the actual parts of the interview that are cause for alarm, such as Wirathu’s dictate to followers that, “Now is not the time for calm. Now is the time to rise up, to make your blood boil.”

It seems the journalist who wrote the piece is the greater of two evils. It reminds me of an article that appeared in the state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper several weeks after Cyclone Nargis in 2008, which killed close to 140,000 people. ‘The enemy that is worse than the cyclone’ was the headline, and the article an indictment of the work of journalists who had circumvented government restrictions to report on the true extent of the disaster, which the junta had tried to hide. They were deemed worse than the death toll of the cyclone. Unfortunately, it seems the general attitude to reporting that challenges entrenched power or perceived wisdom, in whatever shape or form, remains.

There is also the matter of the Time front cover, a portrait of Wirathu with the words “The Face of Buddhist Terror”. This has caused endless uproar, and local media in Burma has fired back with copycat front covers that replace Time’s words with, “The Rights of Buddhist Defenders”. What this speaks to is (a) an inability by sections of the Burmese Buddhist population to acknowledge that Buddhism could have extremist interpretations, and (b) that Wirathu’s quest is one born of spiritual goodness. Both are wrong, and need to be corrected.

The rapid spread of the anti-Muslim campaign has logged its fair share of mutations and contradictions. Take the example of a friend’s cleaner who was ordered to exit a bus in Rangoon a couple of months ago in the wake of Buddhist-Muslim unrest on account of the fact that she “looked Indian”. She was in fact a Burmese Christian, but somewhere in the mind of the accuser, being (or looking) Indian meant being Muslim. The fact that the Buddha came from India had been lost somewhere on the way.

Sometime soon Time Magazine will be hit with a petition from online campaigning platform Avaaz demanding that it withdraw the edition featuring Wirathu. It’s already received 50,000-odd signatures, helped along by the monk’s bold claim that the magazine has committed a “serious human rights violation”. A ‘We Boycott Time magazine for their choice of Wirathu as “Buddhist Terror”’ group on Facebook has nearly 14,000 likes.

It’s both testament to the power of the man’s persuasive sermonizing, and the speed at which the government can latch onto an issue and turn the world’s attention away from its own major shortcomings. The focus now is on one article, yet the serious problems the journalist dealt with continue unabated, as does the government’s inability to spearhead attempts to rebuild peace between the Buddhist and Muslim.