YANGON, Myanmar — Upon seeing his photo splashed across the cover of Time magazine with the words "Face of Buddhist Terror," Myanmar's most-talked-about monk was unfazed, saying no amount of bad publicity could hurt him.
The 46-year-old is accustomed to – even flattered by – the foreign reporters who steadily parade through his monastery in the city of Mandalay to ask about religious violence that has swept his predominantly Buddhist nation in the last year – fueled in no small part by his anti-Muslim rhetoric.
Nearly 250 people have died and tens of thousands have fled their homes, threatening to destabilize the quasi-civilian government that came to power just two years ago after five decades of military rule.
"A genuine ruby will shine," said Wirathu, "even if you try to sink it in mud."
New freedoms of speech have made it easier to disseminate radical views, while exposing deep-seeded racism felt by much of the population toward Muslims and other minorities.
There has been almost no public outcry when Buddhist mobs have marched into villages brandishing machetes and clubs, but the appearance of a Burmese monk on the cover of the glossy international magazine with an inflammatory title was apparently too much.
The social networking site Facebook was alight with criticism.
Dozens changed their profiles to mock-covers of Time with the word "Boycott." One person lamented that the image of his country – and faith – was being tarnished.
"Some people misunderstood the title ... seeing it as an insult to religion," said Dr. Yan Myo Thein, a political analyst. "They believe it's equating Buddhism with terrorism."
Few took the opportunity to criticize Wirathu, however, saying it was further evidence of media bias. The monk has repeatedly called on Buddhists to unite against the "threat" Muslims pose to the country and its culture, accusing them of breeding too fast and hijacking the business community.
The Time article quoted him as saying this was not the time to stay calm.
"Now is the time to rise up, to make your blood boil," he said.