Yangon (AFP) – An ultra-nationalist Myanmar monk was released from prison on Friday after serving time for inciting unrest in an anti-Rohingya protest in 2016, a rare punishment handed to one of the country’s hardline Buddhist clergymen.
Parmaukkha, who was handed a three-month jail term, 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 citizens, referring pejoratively to the community as “Bengalis” and insisting they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
On Friday several dozen supporters cheered and scattered petals in front of Parmaukkha as he walked out of Yangon’s notorious Insein prison at dawn before heading to pray at the city’s iconic Shwedagon Pagoda.
“He has work to do…I love everything he does for religion and the nation,” said Aye Lay, a 32-year-old supporter.
Anti-Muslim hate speech has been brewing in Myanmar for several years, often spilling over into bouts of bloodshed.
Religious hatred has surged in the wake of a ruthless military crackdown that has compelled 700,000 Rohingya to flee 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 on Friday 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.”
The monk 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”.