Myanmar fugitive monk Wirathu hands himself in to face sedition charges

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YANGON (Reuters) - Hardline Buddhist nationalist monk Ashin Wirathu handed himself over to police in Myanmar's commercial capital of Yangon on Monday after more than a year on the run from charges of sedition.

Wearing a face mask and shield, he spoke to supporters at a monks' association in the city before driving to a police station in Dagon township, according to Reuters witnesses. Officials there did not immediately comment.

"I will pay homage to senior monks, and then I will go with police, I will go wherever they send," he said, accusing the government and ruling party of bullying him, according to a video broadcast of the speech.

Wirathu is known for his rhetoric against minority Muslims, particularly the Rohingya community, but he has also been critical of the civilian government of Aung San Suu Kyi and supportive of Myanmar’s powerful military.

The western district court in Yangon issued a warrant for his arrest in May last year.

His surrender to authorities comes days ahead of a Nov. 8 parliamentary election which will decide the next government.

The ruling National League for Democracy party, which came to power in a landslide 2015 victory, is widely expected to retain power, and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi remain as the country's leader.

Speaking on Monday, Wirathu said the government had disrepected a "son of Buddha" by bringing a case against him and called on people and monks to "do their duty in this election", without elaborating.

"His appearance and surrender is nothing to do with the politics ahead of the election," said one of his supporters, Pyinyar Wunthar.

"He just wants to finish his case and clear the accusation against him before the government changes after the 2020 election," he said.

Wirathu is the most prominent of the nationalist monks to gain growing political weight in Myanmar since a transition from military rule began in 2011.

He has often targeted Rohingya Muslims, more than 730,000 of whom fled an army crackdown in Rakhine State in 2017 that United Nations investigators said was carried out with "genocidal intent".

The law under which Wirathu faces possible arrest prohibits bringing "hatred or contempt" or exciting disaffection toward the government. It carries a prison sentence of up to three years.