Min Aung Hlaing, the leader of Myanmar’s coup regime, bestowed one of the country’s highest honours on the controversial ultranationalist monk U Wirathu at a ceremony on Monday.
The monk, who in 2013 was dubbed “the Face of Buddhist Terror” by Time magazine for his hate campaigns against Muslims, was one of 168 people to receive the title of Thiri Pyanchi at the ceremony held in Naypyitaw, according to state media reports.
The title, which was created after Myanmar achieved independence from British rule in 1948, is granted to distinguished individuals every year ahead of Independence Day on January 4.
It has traditionally been given by the head of state to members of the military, civil servants, artists and others deemed to have made important contributions to the country and the public.
A number of other junta allies also received the title on Monday, including lower house speaker T Khun Myat, who remained in the position despite the February 2021 coup; Kachin State chief minister Khet Htain Nan, who was appointed by the regime to replace his ousted and now detained brother Khet Aung; Kyaw Than, the commander-in-chief of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, and Saw Chit Thu, executive advisor to the group’s border guard forces; and religious figures who have declined to speak out against the overthrow of Myanmar’s elected government, including Anglican archbishop Stephen Than Myint Oo and Swami Vivekananda Giriji Maharaj of the Sri Shiva Hindu temple in Yangon.
Past recipients have included more widely admired figures, such as U Thant, the former general secretary of the United Nations; poet Min Thuwun, who was also the father of former president Htin Kyaw; and colonels Kyi Maung and U Lwin, who were among the co-founders of the National League for Democracy (NLD). In 2010, the title was also granted to two of Myanmar’s biggest tycoons, Tay Za and Zaw Zaw.
Ten years before his face appeared on the cover of Time magazine, Wirathu had been sentenced to 25 years in prison for inciting a deadly anti-Muslim riot in Kyaukse, Mandalay Region. Released in 2012, he soon returned to his inflammatory ways as a founding member of the Patriotic Association of Myanmar, better known by its Burmese acronym Ma Ba Tha.
In 2019, he was charged with sedition for a speech he made attacking State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi. After a year in hiding, he turned himself in just before the November 2020 election, which Suu Kyi’s NLD won in a landslide. He was pardoned by the regime in September of last year, and has since kept a relatively low profile, having been barred by the junta from speaking to the media.
Despite this, he has maintained a presence on social media, where a number of his live-stream videos have found a wide audience.