Arts

In Focus

What happens when nationalism goes awry

“The Venerable W” profiles Ashin Wirathu, a Buddhist nationalist in Myanmar.
“The Venerable W” profiles Ashin Wirathu, a Buddhist nationalist in Myanmar.

More and more nations have lately embraced the ideology of “nationalism,” often a code word for ethnic, religious, and racial prejudice and oppression. The recent history of the Southeast Asian nation of Myanmar, where a nationalist movement demonizing Muslims verges on genocide, presents a case study of that process.

That history is illustrated in two documentaries presented by the Belmont World Film “Justice for All” series (June 11-25).

Ashin Wirathu, the title subject of “The Venerable W,” a documentary by Barbet Schroeder (“Reversal of Fortune,” “Amnesia”), comes across at first like a serene Buddhist monk, his voice calm and comforting, his expression benign and wise. He seems to embody Buddhist beliefs in peace, love, and the kinship of all living beings.

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But Wirathu soon reveals an ugly side. 

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He talks about a sermon he often delivers about the African catfish. They breed fast, he says, they are violent, they eat their own species, and destroy the environment. “Muslims are like that species,” he says.

As in “General Idi Amin Dada,” his 1974 documentary about the psychopathically murderous Ugandan dictator, Schroeder allows his subject to express himself unguardedly and reveal his true nature to the camera. 

As he is described on the cover of the June 2013 issue of Time, Wirathu is “The Face of Buddhist Terror.”   

Through his sermons and his social media resources, Wirathu has stirred up the majority Buddhist population’s fear and hatred of the tiny Muslim Rohingya minority. He promulgates lies about their citizenship (even though they have lived in the country for generations), about their increasing population (“they breed like rabbits,” he says), their economic power, their threat to Myanmar women, their link to terrorism, and their parasitic consumption of national resources. 

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He spreads fake news stories about crimes committed by Muslims, which have inspired real-life rioting and attacks in which hundreds of Muslims have been killed and thousands of homes have been destroyed. These attacks sparked an abortive Rohingya insurgency that gave the military-dominated government the excuse to unleash a full-scale ethnic cleansing campaign. That has resulted in widescale destruction of property, and uncounted killings, rapes, and other atrocities. More than half a million refugees have fled to impoverished neighboring Bangladesh, and the Myanmar government has relocated 140,000 others to overcrowded, disease-ridden camps.

“The Venerable W screens with Jeanne Hallacy’s more hopeful short documentary, “Sittwe,” which focuses on young Muslim and Buddhist teenagers who have been estranged by the ongoing ethnic and religious turmoil.

A Muslim girl who lived through some of violence and is now in a detention center misses the days when she and her Buddhist friends could get together. A Buddhist boy expresses similar sentiments, but he still parrots one of the lies spread by Wirathu — that during the anti-Muslim riots the Rohingya burned down their own homes so they could get foreign human rights organizations to build them new ones. 

“Children have to know who the enemy is and where the danger is,” says Wirathu in “The Venerable W.” “That is why I teach mostly children.”

For their sake, and the sake of the future, let’s hope they don’t listen.

“The Venerable W” screens on June 11 at 7:30 p.m., followed by “Sittwe,” at the Studio Cinema in Belmont. The evening also includes a discussion moderated by Yee Htun of Harvard Law School's International Human Rights Clinic. Go to www.belmontworldfilm.org.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.